TAMPA — J.C. Newman Cigar Company, which runs Tampa’s last cigar factory, celebrated its 125th birthday this year.
But rather than ask for presents, the nation’s oldest family-owned cigar company is giving gifts.
The J.C. Newman Cigar Museum recently opened in their Ybor City factory at 2701 N. 16th St. and offers guided 90-minute tours of an operation that produces 12 million cigars a year.
Admission is free, but the tours cost $15 per person and must be booked in advance via their website www.jcnewman.com.
“This is our birthday gift to the city,” third-generation company president Eric Newman said. “Tampa used to have 150 cigar factories. That is why we are called Cigar City. We built this museum to showcase the way that Tampa was. Walking into our factory is like walking back in time.”
The 1,750-square-foot museum spread over three floors includes artifacts dating to J.C. Newman Cigar Company’s birth in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895.
Among curator Holden Rasmussen’s favorites is a wooden salesman carrying case from the early 1900s.
“Now we have salespeople for each region,” Rasmussen said. “But back then, cigar salespeople were independent contractors who sold multiple brands for multiple companies.”
Newman is drawn to a financial statement from 1912 that was filed by his grandfather and company founder Julius C. Newman.
“He made $603 one month, which was pretty good back then,” Newman said.
And then there is the humidor humidifier that today, Newman laughed, would be considered a “fire hazard” but in the early 1900s was a “modern marvel.”
The humidifier is a mason jar with a lightbulb hooked to the lid. The jar is filled two-thirds with water and the heat from the bulb creates a mist.
“Place your cigars in a cabinet with the humidifier to keep them moist,” Newman said. “And hope it doesn’t burn down your house.”
The tour of factory operations also provides glimpses into the past, Newman said, but those artifacts are still in use. “We make cigars the same way my grandfather did.”
Tour guests watch employees work the factory’s hand- and foot-operated machines from the 1930s. The factory has 20 machines and runs around 14 per day.
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“These are the same machines my grandfather used,” Newman said.
Employees stretch a wrapper leaf across their machine’s sheet. Controlled by a foot pedal in the same manner as vintage sewing machines, the machine then cuts the wrapper and moves it to other compartments where it is filled with tobacco and rolled into a cigar.
“There is a skill to operating the machines,” Newman said. “It’s like golf. The best golfers make driving a ball far look easy. Then you try and realize it’s not that easy.”
Before those machines, Newman cigars were hand-rolled. To keep that tradition alive, the Newman factory employs three rollers whose skill can be observed as part of the paid tour.
They roll The American, named after the first cigar made at that factory when it was operated by E. Regensburg & Sons.
Built in 1910, the Regensburg’s three-story, 97,000-square-foot brick factory was hailed by newspapers as “Tampa’s great cigar factory” due to its size and clock tower that could be seen and heard for miles.
As part of the 125th celebration, the Newmans restored the clock.
The Newman family’s history is told through museum placards and a public screening room’s 21 short videos.
In 1889, the Newman family moved from Austria-Hungary to Cleveland. Not wanting to become a tailor like his brothers, Julius C. Newman set his sights on cigar rolling. His mother, Hannah Newman, paid a cigarmaker to teach her son the trade.
He established the company in 1895 in the family barn but relocated to the house basement when winter arrived. That locale lasted only a few weeks. His mother kicked him out when the stored fruits and vegetables tasted like tobacco.
Julius C. Newman moved into a Cleveland storefront from where, by 1910, the company became the most successful of Cleveland’s 200 cigar factories. He built a 50,000-square-foot factory in 1914 where Cleveland’s Progressive Field baseball stadium sits today and later expanded to factories in Marion and Lorain, Ohio.
The company relocated to Tampa in 1954 so it could be closer to Cuba, which back then could still ship tobacco to the United States.
Today, the company uses tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Cameroon.
The American cigar is hand-rolled with tobacco grown only in the United States. It comes from Clermont, Fla., Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
“It makes no economic sense to hand-roll cigars,” Newman said. “It really doesn’t make much economic sense to still use antique hand-operated machines either. But we do both because we respect the family’s history and the industry’s history. We’re happy to now share that with the public.”