Established in 1885, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City is the last actively operating cigar factory in the United States.
Though the region’s factories numbered 200 in its heyday more than a century ago, when the community was known as Cigar City, the industry to a large part left Ybor when the industry went into decline. Behind it, in the 1940s and ‘50s, was a legacy of poverty and crime.
These days, Ybor is no longer a company town, where cigar rollers make their homes in shotgun houses their employers provided. The employees who remain commute from all over the Tampa Bay Area.
With the exception of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which still employs 150, the industry transitioned, with local cigar makers rolling cigars and selling them in small shops and retail stores.
Now the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is making plans to restore the two-story boarding house where its employees once lived: the Sanchez y Haya Hotel at 1601 E. Columbus Dr.
“We’re kind of on a timeline here. ... We have to save the building now. It’s not the most architecturally sound,” explains Holden Rasmussen, the Ybor City-based company’s historian, pointing out the building may not survive five to 10 years without restoration. “We’re going to do everything in our power to not only save it, but preserve it.”
The building named for Serafin Sanchez and Ignacio Haya, who helped start the cigar industry, originally was built in 1910. One of the first in the area to use concrete and reinforced steel rods, it contained 24 rooms with communal bathrooms, hostel style.
It served various functions through the years: as Maximo Gonzalez’s restaurant and bar with hand-carved wooden countertops and filigree-tile ceilings, the Avance Hotel, and a coffee mill and automotive shop. It was home to bootlegging during Prohibition and the gathering place for the criminal underworld.
The only tenants since the late 1990s have been bats, thousands of bats. Different species have nested in the crawl space between the ceiling and roof.
“We want to save these bats because we like the bats,” he says, pointing out they are a form of mosquito control.
The company’s goal is to seal off the building when the bats leave at night to hunt, so they won’t be able to return. As an alternative, they plan a bat tower or house where the bats can roost and nest.
Restoration plans call for a bed-and-breakfast with about a dozen rooms, each with its own bathroom, plus a restaurant and cigar lounge. Rowe Architects of Tampa has been chosen for the project, which is expected to cost several million dollars.
Before proceeding, the company must pass the muster of historical preservation and architectural advisory groups -- a process that could take a year or more. It also needs to secure the foundation.
The company’s goal is to support its El Reloj cigar factory, keep the legacy going, and revitalize the community’s identity as Cigar City.
It already has refurbished the factory and opened a cigar museum and an interactive theater showing cigar-related films. They offer factory guided tours and are planning to open a hand rolling class this summer.
In the future, general counsel Drew Newman, the great-grandson of its founder and anticipated successor to his father (Eric) and uncle (Bobby), would like to create an El Reloj district to include the bat tower, tobacco field, and chicken coops.
“It’s one thing to put cigars in people hands, and it’s another thing to put cigars in people’s minds,” Rasmussen says.
Learn more about J.C. Newman Cigar Factory
and Ybor City’s cigar history
. Also see related story in Smithsonian Magazine