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The Importance of Cigars to Tampa

It's impossible to underestimate the importance of cigars to the city of Tampa. Cigars literally built the city. Before cigarmakers Vicente Martinez Ybor (pronounced EEE-bore) and Ignacio Haya began producing cigars in Tampa in 1886, Tampa had a population of around 1,000 people.

Though Haya constructed the city's first cigar factory, according to Tampa Bay, Cradle of Cuban Liberty, by Loy Glenn Westfall, Ybor became the namesake of cigar city. He built houses for workers, enticing them to move from Key West, which was the center of American cigar production.

They came to Tampa in droves, ballooning the population to nearly 16,000 by 1900. Americans had a voracious appetite for Cuban tobacco, but they smoked few cigars actually rolled on the island: import duties made it cheaper to buy Clear Havanas, cigars made in the United States using only Cuban tobacco. In 1900, American cigar factories imported some 205 million pounds of Cuban leaf. Cigar production in the city peaked in 1929, when 500 million cigars were produced in Tampa's 151 factories, according to Tampa Bay Online.

Ybor City cigar factory workers, circa 1920.

The workers for the cigar industry were made up of Cuban, Spanish and Italian (mostly Sicilian) immigrants, leading to unique melting pot creations, such as Cuban sandwiches made with salami. Machines replaced handmade production, beginning in the late 1920s, and handmade production on any large scale eventually moved offshore. Tampa remained a spot for major machine-made cigar production until the summer of 2009, when the last Hav-A-Tampa Jewel came off the machines in the Tampa suburb of Bradenton.

Today, the cigar legacy of Tampa lives on. At Edward's Pipe & Tobacco, one of the city's finest cigar shops, a mix of men in their 40s, 50s and 60s gather to smoke cigars, play dominoes and reminisce about days of old. Many had parents who worked in Tampa's factories, including an eye doctor whose mother put him through medical school on a cigar-factory salary. If you meet someone in their 50s or older who was born and raised in Tampa, it's likely that his or her parents had some type of connection to the cigar industry.

Source: Cigar Aficionado