Bushnell, FL - Events of Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012
Ybor (pronounced EE-bor) City was established in 1885 by Vicente Martinez Ybor as a location for his cigar factory. Ybor City was originally an independent town, but it was annexed by Tampa in 1887.
We decided to take a drive to Tampa to check out Ybor City with Pat and Mike. The entire neighborhood has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District, so our intention was to first tour the Ybor City Museum and learn a little about the history, then walk around the area to see some of the historic buildings.
Even though Ybor City is located in an urban area, there is plenty of free, on-street parking. Most of it has a two-hour limit, but there seem to be a lot of spaces available, so you can just move your car to a different location if you need more time. There are also several city lots where you can park longer, but there is a fee for those.
The museum is part of an urban state park and is located in the old bakery that was operated by the Ferlita family. It is supposed to open at 9:00 AM; but when we arrived around 11:00, it was closed. The museum store in a separate building next door was open, and they said they were trying to find out why no one had shown up yet to open the museum itself. We later found out the ranger had car trouble.
While we waited to see if the museum was going to open, we decided to walk down the street toward Centro Ybor. Centro Ybor an entertainment complex with a movie theater, shops and restaurants that is adjacent to Centro Español de Tampa, which was a Latin club that was a cultural, recreational and medical center for early Spanish immigrants.
Since the museum wasn't open, we were at a little bit of a disadvantage because we were counting on picking up some of the history of Ybor city at the museum before we walked the streets. Fortunately, there is a Chamber of Commerce Information Center at Centro Ybor where there were a few displays on the history of the area and about cigar making. The lady at the information center also told us about some of the things we should see at that end of town like the Ybor cigar factory. While we were at the information center, we also found out the ranger had gotten to the museum and that it was finally open.
Vicente Martinez Ybor, who was born in Spain, traveled to the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1832 where he opened a factory that produced world-renowned cigars. Because of his support for Cuban independence, Ybor was forced to flee Cuba for the United States in 1869 where he opened a new cigar factory in Key West.
Ybor had difficulty keeping workers at his factory in Key West because Cuba was so close, the workers could easily return home if they decided to. Also, Ybor also had difficulty with frequent strikes in Key west. For those reasons, Ybor bought 40 acres of palmetto and scrub pine flats in 1885 near the then small town of Tampa on the west coast of Florida.
The deep-water port at Tampa was suitable for ships bringing in tobacco from Cuba, and he could obtain enough land to enable him build a company town that included inexpensive housing for his workers so they would not be as likely to return to Cuba. By the time Ybor arrived in Tampa, Henry Plant had also built railroads along Florida's west coast that would enable Ybor to ship his finished cigars north.
Ybor also encouraged others to open cigar factories in his town. This greatly enhanced the vitality of Ybor City because more employers brought in more workers and more workers made better business for everybody. Even though there were other cigar factories, Ybor made sure his was the largest. In fact, the Ybor factory was the largest in the world and covered an entire city block. Since Ybor's factory was only about two blocks from the information center, we headed to the factory before going back to the museum.
The cigar industry peaked in 1929. The market crash and the Great Depression that followed reduced the demand for cigars and weakened the cigar industry. The rise in popularity of cigarettes in the 1920s and 1930s didn't help either. As young men headed off to war in the 1940s, cigar making and Ybor City declined even further.
Ybor's factory remained active until after WWII. Then after sitting vacant for a few decades, it was used as gallery space for artists, a festival marketplace, office space and a restaurant. In 2010, the Church of Scientology bought the entire complex, and they currently offer tours to the public.
After touring the factory, we walked up East 7th Avenue, which is the main thoroughfare through Ybor City, where we enjoyed seeing the early 1900s architecture. We were hoping for some unique shops, but there are mostly restaurants, night clubs and a few tattoo parlors.
The original residents of Ybor City were primarily from Spain, either directly or by way of Cuba. Soon, however, immigrants from Europe saw opportunities and began moving to Ybor City. Germans were involved in the stone lithography process used to print cigar boxes, a few examples of which are shown at the top of this post. Jews came from eastern Europe and Germany and Sicilians came to learn cigar making or to open other businesses. The bakery where the the State Park's Ybor City Museum is located was owned by Sicilians.
Francisco Ferlita built the first bakery on the site in 1896. The original wooden building was destroyed by fire in 1922 and was replaced by the current brick structure. The bakery, which produced 35,000 loaves of Cuban bread a week at its peak, operated until 1973.
Some of the historic buildings in Ybor city were lost to urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. The remaining residents wanted to preserve their heritage, so they requested a museum. Through a bureaucratic blunder, the fire station where the museum was originally to be located was bulldozed on the very day a celebration was being held in a nearby restaurant to commemorate the designation of the fire station as the new museum. The city fathers substituted the Ferlita Bakery building across the street from the destroyed fire house as the location for the museum.
As we mentioned earlier, one of Ybor's problems at his cigar factory back in Key West was his workers frequently decided to leave and go back to Cuba. In Tampa, Ybor turned to the idea of home ownership in order to give his workers more of a reason to stay. Ybor was able to provide a small house called a casita that the workers could purchase at a reasonable price. Most of these wooden homes were lost to urban renewal, but the state park rescued several casitas and relocated them adjacent to the museum.
We got back to the Ybor City Museum just as the ranger was beginning a tour of one of the casitas.
The casitas were modest shotgun houses one room wide by four rooms deep. Families were large with numerous children and probably grandparents living under the same roof. Small back yards had gardens, chickens and sometimes a pig or even a cow.
After the very interesting guided tour of the casita, we walked through the garden that is between the casitas and the museum.
The museum has an excellent video on the history of Ybor City. After watching that, we checked out some of the displays.
Cigar workers sat at row upon row of benches hand rolling cigars all day. Many factories had up to 1,000 workers, but the Ybor factory had as many as 4,000 at its peak. There was no air conditioning back in those days, and work went on year round. In order to help reduce boredom and increase morale, the factories had readers who sat on a raised platform and read books and the newspaper to the workers.
After our visit to Ybor City, we drove a few miles to the Bahama Breeze in Tampa. Bahama Breeze is one of our favorite chain restaurants because the Caribbean atmosphere and island menu make us feel like we are on vacation.
Everyone except Paul had almond-crusted talapia that was served with cinnamon sweet potatoes and a vegetable. Paul had grilled chicken with cilantro crema that was served with mashed potatoes and roasted corn. We shared an appetizer of firecracker shrimp and a chocolate island dessert.
It was a great day. We were happy to learn some interesting Florida history, and we enjoyed sharing the day and a delicious meal with Pat and Mike.