YBOR CITY — The clock tower was the neighborhood timepiece.
Some called it the heart and soul of what was known as "cigar city."
"People kept their time by it," said Arnold Martinez, 78, who grew up nearby in an era when many didn't own a watch or alarm clock. "You could pretty well depend on it."
El reloj, Spanish for "the clock," has stood atop a brick factory over Ybor City for 100 years.
It was February 1910 when Edward Regensburg built the brick factory named for him with its distinctive four-sided timepiece that kept watch over the area. The factory had seats for 1,000 cigar rollers.
Children heard the chimes and knew when to go to school. Concessionaires strolled the halls selling cafe con leche to workers, and lectors read aloud. Employees came in as bells chimed.
They streamed out like ants when el reloj tolled the end of the workday, said Ruben Sierra, 87, who grew up half a block from the factory and remembers watching workers.
All the factories had nicknames, Sierra said. The Regensburg factory came to be known as El Reloj. His mother earned $7 a week stripping the stalks from tobacco in one of them.
The cigar industry boomed in the late 1920s. Tampa produced more cigars than any other city in the world, said Anthony Carreño, a board member of the Ybor City Museum Society.
There were about 250 cigar factories here, including many small operations, called buckeyes. The cigar industry generated 75 percent of the wages for Tampa workers, said Carreño.
The Regensburg was one of the larger factories, said Carreño, and the clock became a landmark.
"A beacon." Carreño said. "You could tell people, I live near the clock."
In the years that followed, business waned. Machines replaced workers and smoking became an unaffordable luxury for many during the Great Depression.
In 1951, the factory closed its doors.
Then, three years later, a new owner moved from Cleveland and reopened it in 1954. He didn't use the cigar roller, but relied on machines instead. He hired untrained labor to run them. He paid them well and banished unions, concessionaires selling coffee and bolita tickets.
But Stanford Newman didn't know the neighborhood relied on the clock, said Shanda Lee, marketing director for J.C. Newman Cigar Co., the factory's name today.
So when a mother nearby complained that her baby couldn't sleep through the chiming, he wanted to be a good neighbor. Soon after he took over, he sent a worker up to cut off the bell.
"Back in the day when el reloj chimed, the townspeople basically lived and slept by the clock. That was their clock," Lee said.
Some believed it had magical powers and called it the "wishing clock."
"The idea was you held your arms out to the 9 and the 3 like the hands of the clock as it was chiming and your wish would come true," Lee said.
Dozens asked Newman to restore the bell. Some didn't own a watch, they said. But he didn't restore the bell.
The clock stood quiet for nearly 50 years. Hurricanes and neglect destroyed the faces, except for one.
Then in 2002, Eric Newman, now president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., built a small museum featuring the cigar industry, with photos and the remaining original clock face. He moved the rusted inner mechanisms, originally on the third floor under the bell, to the first floor museum and reattached the 1,500-pound bell in the tower.
Today, the factory once called El Reloj is the last working cigar factory in Tampa, sending out 40,000 cigars a day.
Inside, the air is thick with the aroma of cured tobacco. In a storage room, known as a barn, a pile of tobacco reaches the ceiling. Nearby, workers operate antique machines that cut tobacco leaves, roll them into cigars and package them.
Drivers along Interstate 4 can see the factory with its four-sided clock, just as the people of Ybor City could a century ago.
Each morning at 5:30, a security guard winds the gears that lift the 50-pound weights and the clock chimes the hours until 5 p.m.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813)226-3431 or email@example.com.