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Ybor relative gets a treasure: account of great-granddad's fortune

Tampa's last Ybor recently was asked to come by Tampa Antiquarian Books to check out a carton from Cuba. It appeared to be full of century-old papers related to his great-grandfather, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the founder of Ybor City, eulogized as the Great Benefactor when he died on Dec. 14 114 years ago.

Great-grandson Rafael Martinez-Ybor, 81, met up at the bookshop with Andy Huse, a librarian in special collections at the University of South Florida. Huse asked him to look through the box from Cuba — and to pay extra attention to one item.

Most of the contents appeared to be letters and photos saved by Ybor relatives who remained in Cuba after a young Rafael fled the Castro takeover in 1961. But digging deeper in the box, he found a yellowed, typewritten document, folded in thirds, about 40 pages long.

Martinez-Ybor's eyes widened.

It was the legacy the great- grandson never got.

• • •

Before Vicente Martinez-Ybor died in 1896, he had — over a frenzied 10-year span — turned malarial swamp into Cigar City. All the locks, stocks and beer barrels in Ybor City had been his doing — from the cigar factory to the bank, to the brick factory, brewery, gashouse and icehouse, to even the $1,495 worth of turkeys, cigars, wines and Japanese lanterns that went into the annual employee Christmas party he threw at his house.

At his death, the big questions were:

Could Ybor City withstand the liquidation of Martinez-Ybor's holdings?

What would Ybor City be without Ybor?

That was what the document in the box had the answers to.

Martinez-Ybor's business partner was the author. He was Eduardo Manrara, Martinez-Ybor's reputed financial genius. The two had been together since the 1860s, when Martinez-Ybor hired Manrara to keep the books at his first tobacco factory in Havana. Like Martinez-Ybor, Manrara was bald and wore an enormous mustache.

By the time Martinez-Ybor moved his factory and his El Príncipe de Gales (Prince of Wales) cigars to Key West and then to Tampa, he had elevated Manrara from bookkeeper to partner. It was Manrara who recommended the move to Tampa, after stopping there on a train trip. Manrara promised to transform Tampa into "the Havana of the United States." Martinez-Ybor allowed Manrara 37 percent of the stock, while he kept the largest share, 38 percent. (His son, Edward, held 25 percent.)

That was the first surprise great-grandson Rafael found in the papers — that Manrara held such power. Martinez-Ybor had also made him president of the bank he controlled.

But no one knew Martinez-Ybor's holdings better.

In his accounting of everything after Martinez-Ybor's death, Manrara even put a value on the scraps of tobacco leaves swept from the cigar factory floor:

$2,117.

• • •

It might have been easier for Manrara to tabulate what Martinez-Ybor didn't own.

He owned:

The Ybor City Land & Improvement Co.

The world's largest cigar factory.

The world's largest stash of Cuban tobacco leaf outside Cuba, plus 141,000 cigars.

A frame factory.

A brick factory.

A paving and tile factory.

A brewery.

Two artesian wells.

An ice plant.

A gas plant.

Most of the houses built for factory workers.

The Exchange National Bank.

A bathhouse.

A laundry.

A fire insurance company.

An IOU from the city of Tampa for $31,000 — at 8 percent interest.

Manrara overlooked no IOUs. One other was for $39.

• • •

Manrara wrote that Martinez-Ybor's most cashable assets were the tobacco and beer. Almost all the other enterprises thrived only as satellites.

But Martinez-Ybor had been ingenious in protecting those two.

Because of ongoing revolution in Cuba before the Spanish-American War, Martinez-Ybor had built a massive extra warehouse in Ybor City. He had filled it with more Cuban tobacco than existed anywhere else in the world — a cache that Manrara valued at $405,813.91.

Besides the booming cigar works, the Ybor brewery was pumping liquid gold. It was the state's only brewery. Its nearest competition was St. Louis. His two artesian wells kept it supplied with water. A grateful Tampa citizenry chugged 20,000 barrels a year.

Manrara noted that the brewery had capacity for 60,000 barrels — for Tampa guzzlers, a perpetual nirvana. "It would seem highly probable that some outsiders could be found to buy this property."

He also pointed out that the ancillary icehouse made "beautiful ice."

More worrisome, though, were Martinez-Ybor's real estate holdings.

For starters, his Cuban properties had virtually no worth as long as revolutionaries ran amok. Even if the fighting ended, their value would be nominal.

In Ybor City, Manrara warned that many of his buildings, including the houses built for workers, were wooden and unpainted. They'd already outlasted their life spans in Tampa's termite-friendly climate. (Some of them still stand today.) He wrote that their value was much less than on paper. He feared the inflated values had fed a real estate bubble.

He also viewed Martinez-Ybor's exclusive Cherokee Club — built for entertaining investors and local high rollers — as a white elephant.

There just weren't enough high rollers around.

"A questionable asset," he wrote.

Manrara concluded that the holdings were so vast that total liquidation wasn't possible. "There is not enough available capital in Tampa to convert the Ybor properties into money."

• • •

But that was what happened, Rafael Martinez-Ybor said. His great-grandfather's widow, Mercedes de las Revillas, did liquidate. "By the end of 1905, there was not much left," he said.

The great-grandson never rolled a cigar. He made his own way in banking. He did fine. But as he read through the yellowed, 113-year-old document, he admitted to momentarily imagining great riches that, under other circumstances, might have been handed down to him.

"Just the name remains," the last Ybor in Tampa said.

"That's as valuable as anything else."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

.if you go

See the document

The public may view the document in the special collections reading room at the USF Library in Tampa. It may be digitized later for online use. For information, contact Andy Huse at (813) 974-7622 or ahuse@usf.edu.

Ybor relative gets a treasure: account of great-granddad's fortune 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 3:20pm]

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