Excerpted from From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa, by Andrew T. Huse. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
The Booze Barons
In the 1890s, Tampa’s thirsty population and visitors gave rise to a thriving saloon culture. Wealthy patrons drank under the minarets of Tampa Bay Hotel or shot billiards on the fine tables at Balbontin’s Saloon. The White Swan and later the Saloon Columbia epitomized the simple pleasures of working-class saloons. Those at the bottom of the social ladder had the most places to choose from, a plethora of bars, drinking shanties, and blind tigers with floors of sawdust in place of spittoons.
As Tampa’s saloon culture boomed with the arrival of a new workforce composed largely of immigrants, a new class of immigrant entrepreneur rose with it. In the years since the founding of Ybor City, Tampa’s saloons and alcohol sales had been expanded and largely taken over by immigrant entrepreneurs. Besides the cigar factories and social clubs, the most prominent symbol of immigrant achievement was the Florida Brewery, founded by Don Vicente Martinez Ybor himself. In 1896, national brewers and local prohibitionists opposed Vicente Martinez Ybor’s formation of the Florida Brewing Company, but local boosters cheered. The brewery opened on May 18, 1896, at Thirteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, relying on Tampa’s then-abundant spring water. The brewery was the first in the state and its beers became leading brands in Florida and Cuba. The brewery became the single-most profitable part of Ybor’s sprawling business empire. In 1900, no other American brewery sent more product to Cuba. Newspapers typically dismissed the objections of dry activists in the interest of commerce. “The Tribune takes no stock in the objections raised to the brewery by a class of men who are too good for their own good.”
Locally, the wholesale liquor dealers benefited the most from the rich liquor trade. B. M. Balbontin and Robert Mugge became wealthy and influential as brewery agents for Pabst and Busch, respectively. They both used the leverage of their powerful employers to acquire exclusive outlets for their products. Both routinely bought saloons for themselves and their employers.
Bautista Balbontin was born in 1863 in Romorose near Santander, Spain. In 1883, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he became a waiter at a saloon and later acquired one with a partner. Evidently a casualty of a local “beer war,” Balbontin came to Tampa in 1889, where he quickly found his footing. His career as a cigar maker lasted one week, after which he worked as a manager for Loera and, later, Pendas & Co. In 1893, he bought his first saloon in Tampa (Seventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street) and was elected tax appraiser. About a year later, he sued his former partners for debts and acquired a piece of East Ybor land in the process. In 1897, he opened a new saloon nearby. He closed his old bar while quietly planning his next enterprise.
The Tribune wrote of Balbontin, “He has built up a trade that he is likely to take with him wherever he may go. No man in Ybor City has a wider circle of friends than Mr. Balbontin, who has won an enviable reputation as a caterer to the public. [He] enjoys the distinction of being one of the most popular caterers that Tampa has ever known.” The saloon was “handsomely and effectively fitted in oak, and is brilliantly lighted by electricity.”
Balbontin had as much nerve as he had business acumen, and soon he seemed to take some satisfaction in challenging the Sunday laws and skewering its adherents. By 1901, he had entered the more profitable wholesale liquor business. When the brewery fell on hard times, Balbontin bought in as a partner in 1905. He retired from the brewery in 1909 and dedicated his time to the wholesale business.
Born in Lauterberg, North Germany, in 1852, Robert Mugge became Tampa’s other influential liquor dealer at the time. He came to the U.S. Midwest as a young jeweler-milliner in 1869, then briefly relocated to Cuba owing to his chronic asthma. He finally settled in Tampa in 1878 and became a citizen in 1879. Mugge’s rise in Tampa began when he became the local agent of the powerful Anheuser-Busch breweries. His employers subsidized his investments and helped vault him into business as a liquor distributor in the 1890s. In the late 1890s, Mugge was able to buy new real estate with regularity. The Tribune observed, “R. Mugge is determined to control the saloon business in Tampa, or at least a majority of it.” Mugge could lease his saloons to franchisees and sell them his beer and liquor without much regard for the proprietor’s take. In the words of the Tribune, “Many saloons in this city have been practically run by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co. Mr. R. Mugge is their agent and through him the Company paid the license, and the operators paid their backers so much each week for these considerations.”
Mugge’s intellect manifested itself in many ways. He spent years dabbling with technology as a source of income with varying success. Mugge’s most successful enterprises included an ice plant, a distillery (Central and Cass), and a bottling plant on Marion Street adjoining his home. In Tampa’s often unrelenting subtropical heat, Mugge made his own refreshing soda, specializing in lemon, strawberry, and sarsaparilla (comparable to root beer) flavors. Mugge pioneered the use of slot machines and other mechanical gambling devices. Trying something new always came with risks. He became the test defendant for a nickel slot machine that the city had already licensed for use.
His son remembered how Mugge would relax on Sundays. Never one to waste time, he leisurely paid his bills and maintained his account books in the presence of friends and “wisecrackers.” In 1912, he bought the black-only Central Hotel and built the Bay View Hotel in 1915, the year of his death. Mugge’s intellect set him apart from many of his contemporaries, and he became one of the most outspoken opponents of the Sunday laws, often penning persuasive editorials in his letters to the newspapers. The ambitious German had built a small empire of saloons and real estate by the time of his death in 1915.
The heavy liquor traffic in Tampa soon attracted national attention. As competition reached a fever pitch, many owners turned to America’s largest breweries for support, such as expensive fixtures, license fees, and other business expenses. Of the national brewery giants, Anheuser-Busch came to dominate Tampa’s saloons by 1896. According to a saloon owner, only three of Tampa’s approximately thirty-five saloons were actually owned locally in 1897.
Andrew T. Huse is the author of The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine. A librarian with the University of South Florida Libraries’s Special Collections department, he lectures across the state about Florida history and foodways. To learn more and to purchase a copy of From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa, follow this link: University of Florida Press.
Jacket cover endorsement: Author Andy Huse “takes the reader on a tour of Tampa that is sometimes seedy, sometimes glamorous, but at all times entertaining,'' says Rodney Kite-Powell, Tampa Bay History Center Historian and co-Author of "Tampa Bay’s Waterfront: Its History & Development.''