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Benefactor in bronze

Originally Published: July 23, 2000

Tribune file photo
The only monument to Vicente Martinez-Ybor prior to the bronze statue, was this bust at the Ybor City State Museum.

A statue of the man whose name became synonymous with Tampa's cigar industry surveys the scene of his 19th century exploits from a strategic point in the new Centro Ybor development.

The bronze statue portrays Vicente Martinez-Ybor in a characteristic pose: Wearing a straw hat and carrying an umbrella.

The decision of Martinez-Ybor to bring his factory to Tampa in 1885 proved crucial to the growth of Tampa. His purchase of 40 acres northeast of downtown brought about the creation of Ybor City.

For decades to come, cigar manufacturing would be the city's No. 1 industry. Most of the factories were concentrated in Ybor City and West Tampa.

The only previous memorial to the Ybor City founder is a bust that occupies a prominent location in the garden of the Ybor City State History Museum.

A NATIVE OF SPAIN, Vicente was born in 1818. At 14, he went to Cuba to escape military duty in North Africa. According to Professor Glenn Westfall's doctoral dissertation, Martinez-Ybor became a tobacco broker by age 17.

He married Palmia Learas in 1848, and they had four children. The ambitious businessman expanded into cigar manufacturing. His best-known brand, El Principe de Gales, was introduced, with Great Britain's Prince of Wales pictured on the label.

After the death of his first wife, Martinez-Ybor married Mercedes de las Revillas, whose family reportedly provided the husband with a dowry of $100,000. They had eight children, but two died in infancy.

According to Westfall, Spanish taxes and regulations on Cuban industry pushed Martinez-Ybor into opposing the government's policies. He sided with Cuban dissidents when they began actively defying the Spaniards.

The cigar manufacturer escaped arrest by dodging authorities and leaving secretly on a schooner bound for Key West in 1869.

Martinez-Ybor leased property there and resumed production of Principia de Gales, using Cuban workers who fled the Ten Years War.

By 1875, V.M. Ybor and Co. was making more than 10 million cigars a year in its Key West factory.

The first union of cigarmakers had organized in Key West in 1874, and it threatened a strike at Martinez-Ybor's factory in 1876. Although the strike was averted, work stoppages disrupted production periodically.

An 1885 strike stretched the patience of Martinez-Ybor and other Key West manufacturers. They began to look for other Gulf port sites ""free from labor unrest.''

FORTUNATELY FOR TAMPA, two of Martinez-Ybor's friends had visited Tampa and recommended it as a potential site for cigar manufacturing. Its humidity was considered an advantage, not a detriment.

The Tampa Board of Trade helped in negotiations for the initial site. Once the deal was struck, it took thousands of loads of sand and sawdust to fill in swampy, low spots. Mosquitoes and alligators alarmed early workers.

Fire struck the Ybor factory in Key West in 1886, so Martinez-Ybor was totally dependent upon the new, three-story Tampa facility. The first cigars were turned out in April 1886. He and his friendly rival, manufacturer Ignazio Haya, offered free 10-year leases on buildings to other manufacturers. And Ybor City was on its way.

Martinez-Ybor went out of his way to make reasonably priced housing available to the immigrants who came from Cuba, Spain and Italy to work in the factories.

When Martinez-Ybor died in December 1896 at the age of 78, the Tribune headlined his passing, ""Great Benefactor Gone.''

Martinez-Ybor was called ""V.M. Ybor'' when he came to the United States. But the family name, following Hispanic custom, joined the father's and mother's names. The Tribune's obituary referred to him as Vicente Martinez-Ybor.

In addition to Rafael Martinez-Ybor, two other direct descendants reside in the Bay area: Mercedes and Maria Julia, twin granddaughters of Vicente.



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