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Ybor City Upholds Its Cigar-Making Traditions

Named after Cuban exile Don Vincente Martinez Ybor, this city began when Ybor relocated his Key West cigar-making business. Once known as the hand-rolled cigar capital, it now remains a historical 40-acre town complete with shops and restaurants that keep it bustling day and night.

Although the original cigar factory is no longer in existence, the memories still preside. At the factory, employees sat and hand-rolled cigars all day, while a lector read them the daily newspapers in the mornings and part of a novel in the afternoons.

The rollers were the highest paid industry workers at $20 a week, while the educated lector (hired by the workers) earned $50 a week for his services.

At the peak of production, the cigar business employed 13,000 people and the rollers were considered the most well-informed in the community. As a result, the majority of them encouraged their children to pursue education and become professionals.

Cuban revolutionary José Marti frequently visited Ybor to raise funds to help free Cuba. He lectured in the park across from the factory to encourage the workers to donate money. The small park still belongs to the Cuban government.

In their time off, the cigar makers and their families spent many hours at one of the five local ethnic clubs. Built to serve the main nationalities - Cuban, Spanish, Italian, Jewish and German - the clubs reinforced values and made available a variety of programs, including health care, a pharmacy, a library, a language school (Ybor was predominantly Spanish) and offered theater, dining and dancing.

The main floor, usually reserved for men only, was where they gathered to exchange stories, voice concerns about working conditions, enjoy their drinks and gamble. The Cubans played the popular game of bolita, while the Italians tried to win at dominoes.

A 90-minute Ybor City walking tour covers about 15 blocks, taking visitors through significant historic buildings and along busy 7th Avenue where you now find everything from body armor (chains) for men and women, to some of the best sandwiches in town. You will still be able to see some of the buildings' original balconies along the tour.

The walking tour ends in front of the Ybor State Museum across from Centennial Park. A self-guided tour through the museum traces the history of Ybor City. Midway is a 15-minute video that captures the memories of old residents. Next to the museum are a few of the cigar makers shotgun-style homes that have been preserved and moved here. An informative guide can walk you through and describe the lifestyle of the period.

If it's time for lunch, you'll probably smell the aroma of freshly baked Cuban bread wafting from the bakeries and local restaurants. At the corner of 7th Avenue and 19th Street you'll find the Silver Ring, famous for Cuban sandwiches; Speedy Browns, known for hamburgers; and La Tropicana, the place where politicians and influential businessmen gather for power lunches.

Further down is the famous Columbia Restaurant, now in its fourth generation of family ownership. This award-winning landmark restaurant covers a city block, has 11 dining rooms, seats about 1,600 people and serves Spanish specialties and nightly flamenco entertainment. You can't go wrong ordering the popular half-and-half lunch - a Cuban sandwich and the famous "1905" original Columbia salad.

On weekends Ybor City comes alive to such a degree the city has passed a "no cruise" ordinance to hold down traffic after dark. Every bar, restaurant and parking lot is packed with those searching for a slice of Cuban fun.

For more information, call the Ybor City Chamber Visitors Information Center at 813/241-8838.