The rich history of cigars and the City of Tampa reach back to the 1860s. Named after the founder who brought cigar manufacturing to the area, Vicente Martinez Ybor, Ybor City still bears the name of the cigar tycoon. Ybor City was once the world’s cigar capital, producing over half a billion hand-rolled cigars yearly. Today, cigar manufacturing is a shadow of what was once a booming industry.
J.C Newman Cigar Factory is the only cigar factory still producing hand-rolled and machine-manufactured cigars in the Tampa Bay area. To keep the history alive, guided one-and-a-half-hour tours are available for $15 per person. I entered this tour with zero knowledge of cigar manufacturing. With every floor we climbed from the basement to the third story of the factory, my appreciation grew for the craftsmanship and time put into each cigar.
Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here
Our tour started with a brief history of the J.C Newman legacy. Founded in 1895, the company moved from Cleveland to Ybor in 1954. It has remained the oldest family-owned premium cigar maker in America. Although the cigar industry has shrunk significantly in the past sixty years, the methods and machinery are identical to those used when the doors opened.
As we walked down the stairs to the basement, the air became thick with the sweet smell of tobacco. The humidity is familiar to a native Floridian; the water floating through the air makes it feel like you can drink it through a straw. The basement of the J.C. Newman factory is not much different than a home’s basement. Boxes of relics from years ago collect dust on the shelves, old cigar machinery stored for potentially valuable parts, and pallets of dried tobacco leaves stacked, waiting for rehydration. One bale of pre-embargo Cuban tobacco rested comfortably on a cart; the words Cubano still stamped across the top of the burlap sack. This bag of tobacco remains a novelty; when asked if the factory has Havana tobacco, they can confidently say “yes.”
The Aging Room was just off to the side of the bales of dried tobacco leaves waiting for their day to become cigar wrappers. This room is where all the hand-rolled cigars go to rest and mature before being sold. I felt like I was walking into a vault, but instead of gold bars, the shelves were stacked with flawless handmade cigars. The colors around the batches of cigars indicated where the tobacco was grown; red bans are imported tobacco, and black bans are all American.
The birth of a cigar starts in the basement of this factory. Tobacco leaves are either hydrated by hand or by a mechanical process. The hands-on approach requires a person to gather a bunch of tobacco leaves and wave them under a stream of a very fine mist of water. This was the source of the humid air that met us at the top of the stairs. Each leaf is coated just enough to make the leaves pliable for wrapping around a cigar. The mechanical process involves stepping into a room with a large, slowly rotating wheel. The air was cloudy, like we had interrupted a private party we did not receive an invitation to. The cloudiness cleared as the cooler air filled the room; I could see the tobacco leaves attached to the outside of the wheel and a fine mist of water gently coating each leaf as the wheel rotated. The leaves are then sent to the second floor for striping.
Second Floor: Machine-Made Cigars
Each tobacco leaf must be stripped of its center steam. The strippers (not that kind of stripper, get your head out of the gutter) feed individual leaves through a machine like dollar bills into a vending machine. Instead of it spitting out a soda or candy bar, the striping machine precisely cuts the center stem away, leaving only the two sides of the leaf to be used for the cigar wrapper.
These cigar wrappers are then taken down the hall to a person operating the machinal cigar machine. The glow of old dim farmhouse pendant lights hanging overhead cast shadows into every corner while olive green cigar machines ticked away. The wood floors are beautifully worn with dark stains and deep gouges from decades of cigar making. If the 112-year-old floors could talk, I bet they could fill a library with the stories heard within this room.
Watching a cigar form through these ancient machines was mesmerizing. One person operates each machine. The cigar maker stretches the freshly stripped tobacco leaf over a metal plate to be cut into the correct shape. From there, the cigar machine does all the work. A fresh cigar comes rolling off the conveyor belt in a few seconds. Around 50-60 thousand cigars will be made in this room each day.
Third Floor: Hand Rolled Cigars
The tour ends on the third floor. Three artisan hand rollers are sitting at small desks, meticulously rolling cigars. This factory was once filled with hundreds of cigar makers. Black and white photos along the wall show the very room I was standing in filled with these desks and workers. Today there are three remaining. Each hand roller will produce about 100 cigars a day. This is a stark difference from the floor below, making tens of thousands daily.
A small stage sits at the front of the room. It was once the stage for a person to read the newspaper aloud while the workers rolled cigars. After news spread of other factory workers walking off the job for higher pay and better working conditions, reading the news was stopped. Today the third floor is also used as an event space. Weddings and large gatherings are hosted here when the room is not used for hand rolling.
Like all good tours, ours ended in the gift shop, where we could purchase cigars and other souvenirs. I signed up for the J.C. Newman Cigar Tour to learn about cigars; however, I walked away with a greater appreciation of the history of Ybor. Not only do I know more about the craftsmanship necessary to make cigars by hand, but also how impactful this industry is for the City of Tampa.
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