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Ybor City State Museum: A Statement About Heritage

Cigar Workers
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Sketch of Ybor City State Museum
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Ybor City State Museum: A Statement About Heritage

 

By Richard L. Servis Jr. 

 

     Did you know that Caesar Romero's grandfather was Ramon Rivero Rivero, founder of several Cuban revolutionary publications and leader of the Revolutionary Party?  The Party raised money from the tobacco workers in support of Jose Marti for Cuba's independence from Spain. A bust sculpture of Jose Marti is on display at the museum. Ramon Rivero Rivero's two prime publications were: "Cuba, La Rivista de Florida", and "Critico de Ybor City." He also founded the El Loceo Cubano, a literary and artistic society for Cubans.

 

     Although Ybor City is noted for it's Hispanic influence today, early immigrants from several European countries were a strong influence on the community, namely Jewish, German and Italians. In a very general sense, the Jewish people owned many of the stores, Italians were fishermen and fish merchants, and the Cubans owned or worked in the cigar making industry. A prominent brewery was owned and operated by Germans.  These are but a few of the many facts visitors learn when visiting the Ybor City State Museum.

 

     One section of the Ybor City State Museum is dedicated to Mr. Francisco Ferlita, founder of Ferlita's Bakery in 1896, which operated until 1973. During the peak years the bakery could produce 1500 loaves of bread per day, 500 of which were delivered directly to homes. A nail was placed on the outside wall of the house and the deliveryman would slap the Cuban bread against the nail. The wall-hung bread would be waiting for the customer to retrieve when convenient. Francisco Ferlita had five sons, two of whom survive today. Tony Ferlita was noted for his expertise in pastry baking, and John Ferlita was noted for his baking of bread. John and his wife Rose often visit the museum with a great deal of pride, and share first-hand stories of the old days with the staff and volunteers.

 

     In Ybor City, home delivery was common for most consumer goods

such as ice, milk, eggs, and newspapers. Grocery customers could leave a list with the grocer in the

morning on the way to work, for later delivery at the customer's convenience.

 

     A large section of the museum features a full-sized wall mural

of cigar makers working in a production area.  Several original cigar-making machines and hand tools are on display. Behind the main desk in the lobby is a large colorful "decoupage"

of cigar box labels.

 

     Part-way through the self-guided tour, (guided tours are also available, visitors notice a mosaic display or "module" featuring Tampa and Ybor City's Jewish heritage. A small photo of Mayor Sandy Freeman as a tennis professional is on display there. The names of Maas (Mass Brothers Department Stores), and Wolfe (Wolfe Brothers Clothing Stores) appear on a plaque among several

other well-known family names of Tampa. The "rotating" or circulating Tampa/Ybor City oriented display is on loan from the University of Florida and will be here for another six months. Later it will join a permanent all-Florida display in a building now under construction in Miami.

 

     Outside the museum, a Spanish style courtyard and garden lends additional atmosphere to the visit. A covered platform in one corner of the courtyard is used for lectures and outdoor meetings. There were 22 events held in the courtyard and gardens last year alone, and six so far this year. The courtyard and garden may be rented for weddings, receptions, and other appropriate occasions. A bust sculpture of Vincente Martinez-Ybor is tastefully placed near a fountain declaring him "Pioneer of the Cigar Industry in Florida, and Founder of Ybor City."

 

     Vincente Martinez-Ybor owned a successful cigar manufacturing business in Key West before settling and establishing Ybor City. Serious problems with the workers union helped force him to seek a new location. Fortunately, the "Tampa Board of Trade" encouraged him to open his cigar manufacturing business in Tampa in 1886. Anyone familiar with the rustic shopping mall called "Ybor Square", and the popular eating place called, "Spaghetti Warehouse" have already trod upon the floors in two of Ybor's original cigar factories.

 

     Visitors will notice during the Ybor City State Museum tour that cigar workers were called cigar "makers", and were treated as skilled professionals. Cigar makers came to work in good clean clothes daily, sometimes wearing suits, hats, and often white shirts with starched collars. Two facets of the profession were "bunchers" and "rollers". Other tasks in the industry were also given appropriate titles. Each worker respected  the other for their expertise. Most honored were the "master" cigar makers who could construct a cigar from start to finish-- alone. Their handmade cigars called "Spanish Hand" sold at a premium, worldwide. Their work was viewed more as artistry than as craftsmanship. Most of the production of cigars was done in "teams" of three

people, all of whom were not necessarily Cuban. Workers from many nationalities worked in the cigar factories, with teams sometimes combining Hispanics, Anglos, and Blacks. Each job was paid by piecework, with everyone getting exactly the same rate. A  fierce union strike insisted upon it in the contract. The cigar industry at that time was the only place a black worker could receive the same rate of pay as a white worker in the same trade. In the year 1900 Tampa cigar manufacturers produced 111 million cigars.

 

     Adjacent to the museum's courtyard and garden is "La Casita", meaning "Little House", where a cigar maker lived with his family. The house was one among many constructed in 1895 for rental to

cigar factory employees by Vincente Martinez-Ybor. The rent was $2.00 to $3.00 per week. La Casita is not part of the museum-proper, but is unofficially associated. One may purchase tickets for the museum and/or La Casita at the museums front desk.

 

     The Ybor City State Museum is operated by the Florida Parks Department. Ranger David Alderman is one of the very few connected with the museum or La Casita without an Ybor City upbringing. However, he has certainly done his homework on the history of Ybor City. In spite of his modesty, he can answer almost any question from visitors about Ybor City history.  Nearly all the volunteers at La Casita were born and raised in Ybor City, and can enlighten visitors on Cuban-American culture as well as local history.

 

     Adeline Garcia, a volunteer with Ybor City Museum Society at La Casita is also very active in attempts to restore the landmark building of Centro Asturiano, one of several ethnic clubs located

in Ybor City of yesteryear. The club was named after Asturias, a province in northern Spain,

and the former home of many of the immigrants who settled in Ybor City. Ms. Garcia's eyes sparkle with enthusiasm when she reflects on the organization's celebrations, separate dances and music for older and younger generations in the same building, special fiestas, and cultural traditions.

 

     Across the street from the museum in Ybor Centennial Park, a monument was erected in recognition for all immigrants who settled in Ybor City.

    

     The Ybor City State Museum is located on the corner of 9th Avenue and 19th Street in Tampa. The telephone number is (813)247-6323. (Closed Mondays).

 

     A free walking tour of Ybor City can be equally pleasant, but seeing the museum first helps one to appreciate the walking tour much better.

 

     The Ybor City Chamber of Commerce is located a few doors away from the museum, and the staff are delighted when people make inquiries about things to see and do in the area.  A calendar of events is available.   Their telephone number is (813)248-3712.

 

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Approximately 1264 words

Copyright 1993, Richard L. Servis Jr.

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