Jacksonville's forgotten Cuban cigar industry
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, The Jaxson and Modern Cities highlight a bit of forgotten early 20th century Cuban cigar manufacturing history in Jacksonville.
Nevertheless, the wheels had been set in motion for who would become Florida’s dominant late 19th century cigar making city. A decade earlier in 1885, Vicente Martinez Ybor selected Tampa over Mobile, Pensacola and Galveston to relocate his Key West cigar manufacturing operation. Tampa was selected because the climate was warm and humid, keeping tobacco leaves fresh and close enough to Cuba, making importing Cuban tobacco by sea, affordable and efficient. Henry B. Plant’s new railroad to Tampa also made it easy to ship finished product to the rest of the nation.
To attract skilled Cuban tabaqueros to Tampa, Ybor developed Ybor City, a small company town where his employees could own their own homes and other could establish their own businesses. To increase the available pool of workers, he also encouraged other cigar manufacturers to move in by offering cheap land and free factory buildings. Ybor City’s first factories opened in April 1886, employing less than 100 between them. That same month, a major fire in Key West destroyed several cigar factories, causing many workers and manufacturers to relocate to Tampa.
The “Army of the Cuban Republic” was made up from 40 Cubans from Jacksonville, 200 from New York, and 150 from Key West. They set sail on the “Florida” to join the rebels on May 21, 1898. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/149395
Virtually overnight, the cigar industry transformed Tampa for a small agricultural town into a bustling industrial seaport. By the early 20th century, Ybor City was described as Tampa’s “Spanish India” due to the large immigrant community it had attracted. However, Ybor’s success led to the quick decline of Jacksonville’s budding hand rolled cigar industry. Also, after Cuba obtained its independence, many Cubans living in Jacksonville returned to the island. By 1905, only 42 men and 25 women of Cuban descent resided in Duval County. At the time, Jacksonville’s remaining 11 cigar factories employed 83 workers combined. Down south, Tampa had earned the nickname “Cigar City”, being home to 150 factories employing more than 10,000 by 1910.
A 1925 interior view of the Cuesta Rey Cigar Company in Tampa. This image represents a photographic real estate promotional picture for the Florida Real Estate Investment Corporation Properties from 1925. The photograph was used to sell lots in the subdivision Pinecrest Villa located just north of Tampa. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/18107
In 1929, Tampa reached its production peak, churning out nearly 500 million hand-rolled cigars, primarily with Cuban tobacco. However, back up in Jacksonville, a new cigar giant was already in the making and would soon, reek havoc on Tampa’s cigar manufacturers. A few years earlier, in 1924, Mayor John Alsop noticed a chauffeured Cadillac with an Ohio license plate traveling through town. Seizing the opportunity, he jumped on the car’s running board, introduced himself to the car’s occupant and convinced him to stay overnight in town.
The occupant was cigar maker John Swisher. Swisher was the first cigar manufacturer to install cigar making machinery. Alsop, not only successfully convinced Swisher to bring his machinery to Jax, Swisher also decided to consolidate his 22 Ohio-based cigar factories into one large factory in Jacksonville. The building selected for his operation was a former World War I munitions factory in the New Springfield neighborhood. The large relocation also convinced a major Swisher supplier, the A.S. Ginter Box Company, to move to Jacksonville as well. Ginter’s new factory opened in 1924 across the street from Swisher’s.
Interior view showing employees working inside Jacksonville’s King Edward Cigars factory in 1946. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/167727