If you ever find yourself in Havana, you’re bound to be holding a cigar between your thumb and index finger. Watching the smoke swirl up to the blue skies and surrounded by 500 years of history, you may wonder how the cigar obsession first started.
We all know the catchy phrase, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It leaves out the part about Columbus bringing cigars to Cuba.
Colmbus is generally credited for the introduction of the cigar to Europe. When he explored the Caribbean islands, the natives presented him and his sailors with dry leaves that gave off an unfamiliar scent. When Columbus and his men settled in Cuba, they brought the tobacco habit with them. Columbus, however, wasn't the man who eventually brought the product to the United States.
Vicente Martinez Ybor moved to Cuba at the age of 14 to avoid his Spanish military obligation. He took a job as a grocery clerk before learning the cigar business. He eventually founded his own company in Havana and began manufacturing El Principe de Gales brand. It quickly became extremely popular and his factory was producing 20,000 cigars a day.
In 1868, the Ten Years War broke out as Cubans fought Spain for their independence. Though Ybor was Spanish, he sympathized with the Cuban cause. When he was caught funding the rebels, he escaped to Key West.
With tons of cigar experience under his belt, he built a new factory in no time. He employed many Cubans who had also fled due to the war. Though his business prospered, conflict between the Spanish and Cuban workers — and difficulty of transportation — forced him to look for another site.
Enticed by a subsidy from Tampa's Board of Trade, he purchased 40 acres of land in northeast Tampa in 1885. By the following spring, he and his business partners had built a company town called Ybor City. His cigar factory became the largest of its time. No one else could roll such tightly-bound cigars.
He invited other cigar factories to open business. Ybor himself branched out to other businesses including gas, a brewery and a hotel. Naturally, people needed something to wash down the smoke. What’s better than an ice cold beer?
Ybor transformed the area into a flourishing city. He provided jobs, housing and an economy. It’s amazing what the cigar can do.