In the 1830s, small scale commercial cigar rolling operations were started in Florida by Cuban immigrants. The first cigar factory was established in Key West in 1867 by a German immigrant and New York manufacturer named Samuel Seidenberg. His idea was to get around high tariffs levied against products from Havana by using Cuban laborers to roll Cuban tobacco – thus making “authentic” Cuban cigars in America (https://www.floridamemory.com/onlineclassroom/cigar-industry/photos/).
In 1885, on of the most significant figures in the history of Florida cigar making moved his factory from Key West to Tampa. Vicente Martinez Ybor had fled Cuba after colonial authorities discovered his connections with revolutionaries and opened his first factory in Key West. Innovations with steamships and railroads allowed him to move to the small town of Tampa.
The industrial revolution and economic changes instigated by World War II began to cause a rift between workers and management during the first few decades of the 20th century. Strikes and organized resistance were commonplace by 1889 in Key West, pushing many cigar manufacturers to Tampa. By 1910, there were 150 factories in the Tampa area that employed 10,000+ workers. The area that grew up around the Tampa factories became known as Ybor City.
Alongside the cigar factories, tobacco farming flourished in Florida, that was once the second largest producer of premium cigar tobacco in America. However, 1881 also saw the invention of the cigarette-making machine by James Bonsack. Mr. Bonsack built a factory in North Carolina and made 10 million cigarettes in the first year alone (https://www.quora.com/Why-were-cigarettes-invented-1).
This helped lead to the gradual decline of cigar consumption. The additional invention of the homogenized tobacco wrappers and the high cost of labor due to unionization, eventually saw the closure of thousands of American cigar factories and farms. Including in Florida, where the industry saw its last crop of cigar tobacco grown in 1977.
You can still feel the passion of the cigar industry in Tampa and Ybor city, where nearly half a dozen small operations are actively keeping the art of cigar making alive. Little Havana in Florida sees a flourishing cigar industry on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), which is often called America’s cigar central. Off limits to tourists, it is here that the vast majority of the world’s premium cigars are made.
Perhaps of even more note, Florida has also seen the resumption of tobacco farming. In 2012 Corona Cigar Co. President & Founder Jeff Borysiewicz purchased a 20 acre plot of farm land west of Orlando. 2013 saw the first test crop of Cuban seed Corojo tobacco and 6 successful crops later came the Florida Sun Grown line. The FSG cigar is hand crafted in small batches by Drew Estate.
With a story spanning over 130 years, Florida and the cigar industry have had a tumultuous relationship. At one point it seemed that the two might permanently part ways, but Florida’s love of all things cigars has kept the industry alive and healthy to this day. We can only hope that this will be an enduring love affair.