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David Savona

A Bit of Ybor History

Posted: Oct 19, 2011 12:00am ET

I’m in Ybor City, Florida, the onetime cigar capital of the world. Ybor, part of the west Florida city of Tampa, was built upon cigars. A melting pot community of Cubans, Spanish and Italians made more cigars here than anyplace else, some 500 million a year at its peak. The city was once dominated by proud, huge cigar factories made of brick, each standing several stories tall. Most have crumbled or have been converted into something else. Office space. Nightclubs. A chain Italian restaurant. A precious few still have something to do with cigars.

One of those is the American headquarters of Arturo Fuente cigars. The building, which opened in 1895, originally crafted Charles The Great cigars. In the 1960s, Arturo Fuente and his son Carlos Fuente Jr. bought the factory to make it their new home for cigar production. For many years, the Fuentes made millions of cigars here, most by machine but many by hand. The days when the Fuentes made cigars in the United States are long behind them, but they still own the building in Ybor.

When I visited the Fuentes this week in Tampa, the building was in the midst of serious reconstruction. Cigars haven’t been made here for a long, long time, and most of the building was empty for several years, so much of it fell into disrepair.

The Fuentes have decided to restore the building to its former glory from the late 1800s. Some of the process has already been done, such as rebuilding the brick steps at the entrance, which had been cemented over at some point in history, rebuilding the chimneys on the roof and digging out mountains of waste from pigeons that were roosting in the attic. The efforts are coming along nicely and have resulted in some surprises. For one, they discovered that the bricks inside the building were not red, as originally thought, but yellow. “What have you done to my bricks?” Carlos Fuente Sr. asked the head contractor. The best guess is that the builders chose yellow brick to create a brighter interior, as there were no electric lights when the building was created.

Many things were different here 116 years ago. Cigars were made with Cuban tobacco, which was not only legal at the time, but inexpensive. The building was constructed east to west, with scores of big, wide windows to allow natural light inside. And high, high up at the top is a small cupola with views of all of Ybor.

The cupola, found on most if not all of these old factories, served a role back in the late 1800s and early 1990s. It was the job of the youngest person in the cigar factory to scamper up two extremely narrow flights of steep, steep stairs to climb to the cupola. Up there, the youngster could look west to the port of Tampa and see if a ship had come in. That meant it was time to unload heavy bales of rich tobacco that had come from Cuba, the lifeblood of the factory.

I’m no youngster, but I had to take a look, so I climbed up those stairs and shot some video along the way. Check it out.

The cupola has been restored, the windows redone, and you can still look out on the port. The view has changed—there are highways where there were none, superstores and power lines. And there are far fewer cigar factories out there. But standing up there gave me a sense of all the cigars that were made in this fine city many years ago.

Comments   15 comment(s)

John Fought — Clearwater, FL, USA,  —  October 19, 2011 5:24pm ET

I had the privilege of being given the grand tour of this building by Arturo Fuente himself. What a great place that is indeed rich in the cigar trade history. I am very happy you had the opportunity to see it firsthand as I have.


David Savona October 19, 2011 5:30pm ET

I'm jealous that you met Arturo Fuente, he's one of the legends of the cigar business who died before I started writing about cigars. Thanks for the comment.


Ltru Styles — Whangarei, New Zealand,  —  October 19, 2011 6:08pm ET

Hi Dave, im out here in New Zealand, love the website have been smoking cigars seriously for about a year now, cigars here are expensive eg; Punch coonations $18.00, i have been looking at buying cigars online as they sell cheap bundles, what are your thoughts on these cigars?? thanks.


David Savona October 19, 2011 8:23pm ET

Bundles can be decent smokes depending on what goes into the cigar. You'll want a cigar that's all tobacco--that's the most important--and ideally all handmade from long-filler tobacco. If you opt for a mixed fill (short and long fill) that can be OK too, but it won't have the flavor and nuance of a totally long filler smoke. You're in New Zealand, so don't discount machine-made Cuban cigars. They are cheaper, and tend to be good, if not great smokes. Also look at our bargain list: http://bit.ly/earRau

Good luck.


Christian A October 20, 2011 10:42am ET

Nice story David. Ybor is rich with cigar history as I have been there before although not in the old Fuente factory. Good on you for overcoming your fear of heights in the name of cigar history. I will have to make the climb myself next time I'm in Tampa. Tell me, did you dine at Columbia Restaurant this time?


David Savona October 20, 2011 10:53am ET

Christian, thanks for the comment. Yes I did have lunch at the Columbia with Carlos Sr., Carlito, Cynthia and Lianna Fuente. The look alone of that place is amazing. Lunch was very tasty; I started with some black bean soup and then had the 1905 salad, which is one of those salads that's delicious to eat but there's nothing really healthy about it (lots of ham, lots of cheese, lots of very, very garlicky dressing). Not to be missed.


Christian A October 20, 2011 12:04pm ET

Very nice guests for lunch. I have had both the black bean soup and the 1905 salad and they are delicious. The decor and fountain in the middle of the resto makes you want to light up a cigar while sipping on a mojito right there. If only to dream...


Bryan Marchant October 21, 2011 2:34am ET

Great to hear you made it to Ybor City David. I live in Orlando, FL. Haven't made it to Tampa yet. But as a newbie in my cigar journey to become an aficionado I will make it a misdsion to sponge up the sights their in Ybor City. My hangout for now is the Corona Cigar Company here in Orlando.


David Savona October 21, 2011 9:20am ET

Hello Bryan. Corona Cigar Co. has one of the best smoking lounges I've ever seen. I covered it for a story a few years ago. Dying to get back.


Christian A October 25, 2011 12:30pm ET

My wife and I have a time share in Orlando and as soon as we land we hit Corona for a cigar, cuban sandwhiches and Dominican beer before we even head to to the time share. Nice lounge and large selection of smokes. Good to see you at Cigar Inn last week Dave!


Joey Martin — Phoenix, Arizona, United States,  —  October 25, 2011 8:29pm ET

It's great to see the true history of the American Cigar production. A lot of people forget that cigars became huge in the Florida region. Being a college cigar smoker I am striving to learn everything I can. Very cool.


Kevin Feteira — Hamilton, Ontario, Canada,  —  October 28, 2011 7:55am ET

In reply to buying cigars in bundles. Rocky Patel sells their leading cigar labels as factory overruns in bundles, if you don't mind not having the ring on the cigar you can save over 50percent. I've never had a problem with these, they say they are overruns because of cosmetic defects in the wrapper but I've never seen anything, what does it matter if you're going to burn it anyways. So if you're buying bundles look for Rocky Patel Factory Overruns.


Kevin Feteira — Hamilton, Ontario, Canada,  —  October 28, 2011 8:01am ET

Hi Dave, I go down to visit my inlaws in Tampa every year and I believe that the cigar smoking culture has strong roots in its origins, and a part of my enjoyment in smoking and collecting cigars comes from knowing those origins and seeing the work that goes into a quality cigar. Are there any places I can to tour next time I'm in Tampa? Any comments or suggestions at all?


MANNY IRIARTE — MIAMI, FL, UNITED STATES,  —  October 30, 2011 6:01pm ET

David,
Fantastic story! Congratulation...The cupola is very high, I know that... and Ibor City is magic.
Thanks for share it.


Danny Difabio November 4, 2011 12:05pm ET

Danny Difabio-Key West FL-

Hello Mr. Savona , first off, I would like to say that Im a huge fan. There is nothing better then being passionate about what we do in our everyday lives. I envy you because of all the great cigars you smoke. Speaking of the Fuente family, I had the pleasure to meet Cynthia Fuente here in Key West. She unexpectedly walked in my family's cigar factory and we shared similar stories about how our families immigrated from Cuba to the United States in search of a new beginning.A wonderful lady coming from a wonderful family. Im also proud to say that Im in the tobacco industry myself. Our Family has owned the Rodriguez Cigar Factory here in Key West since 1984, we currently reside as the oldest manufacturer in the Florida Keys still in production. We started the company in Cuba in the 1947. Thats why I think Mrs Fuente and I had such an interesting conversation together. Two families that has an unbelievable passion for handcrafting premium cigars . Well her son gave me a Hemingway Short Story and I gave him a Robusto from our Series 84 line. The conversation as wells as exchanging cigars was unforgetable! The Rodridguez Family would like to thank you and everyone who took the time to read this post. Hopefully, one day one of our cigars can make it to the Top 10! God bless!



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