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.