TAMPA — More than a century ago, a handful of salesmen were charged with introducing the nation to the Ponce De Leon Cigar, rolled by Tampa’s Cuesta-Rey Cigar Co. in honor of the Spanish explorer who landed in Florida in 1513.
Each was equipped with a five-tray wooden display case that was the size of a bread box and carried 100 cigars in 20 shapes and sizes, all hand-rolled with Cuban tobacco.
“Those boxes are part of Tampa’s history as Cigar City,” said Drew Newman, general counsel for the multigenerational family-owned J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which today produces Cuesta-Rey Cigars. “The boxes are special.”
Newman recently acquired one of the boxes.
It dates to 1906 and still contains all 100 Ponce De Leon Cigars. Newman said they are in such “pristine condition” that they could be smoked.
That’s not the plan, though.
Instead, the box and its contents are on display in the Newman’s museum dedicated to Tampa’s cigar history.
The museum already had a salesman display box, but it did not have any of the original cigars.
The museum also has an older box of Cuesta-Rey Cigars on display. Those date to 1901 but were damaged when donated.
Newman believes the museum’s newest edition is Tampa’s oldest fully stocked, mint-condition salesmen display box with all its cigars.
“These cigars are a history lesson,” said Holden Rasmussen, J.C. Newman’s historian. “Cigars rolled using molds became commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s. These were made before then, when they used rolling blocks — flat rectangular stones that they rolled back and forth over the cigar to make them thicker or thinner. They would then box press them to give them a uniform square body.”
The mint condition of the cigars is likely due to how they were stored, Rasmussen said.
Humidors keep cigars moist for optimum smoking conditions but, over time, can cause the shape to swell or shrink.
“These were probably kept in someone’s dry house for a long time,” Rasmussen said. “If you keep tobacco dried out, the tobacco can stay intact forever.”
The salesman box had been in a Dallas home, although it is unclear how the owner acquired it.
The owner donated it to Ralph Stow to be part of an annual auction in support of Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that helps provide educational scholarships to families of fallen and disabled service members. Stow had another idea for it.
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“I didn’t want it just sitting in someone’s home or office where only they could enjoy it,” said Stow, who assists with the auction.
Stow researched the history of Cuesta-Rey. That brought him to J.C. Newman’s website, which promotes their museum.
He then made Newman an offer. He’d donate the box to their museum in exchange for promotional items to be auctioned. Newman traded two 4-foot-tall hand-painted sculptures of cigars.
“It was a fair deal,” Stow said. “We still raise the money, and the museum gets its history.”
Angel Cuesta set up a small factory in West Tampa in 1884. Two years later, he partnered with Peregrino Rey to form Cuesta-Rey. They later opened two more factories — one in Jacksonville and one in Havana.
“A century ago, Cuesta-Rey was one of the most famous cigar brands in the world,” Newman said. “It was the official cigar of King Alfonso XIII of Spain” beginning in 1915.
There are different stories for how that came to be.
One says it was to honor Cuesta’s charitable work in his native Asturias, Spain, where he built schools and wells.
Another story says it was because Cuesta sent cigars to the king and cigarettes to Spanish troops during a war.
Cuesta certainly had a “strong allegiance to Spain,” Newman said, as evident by the Ponce De Leon Cigar.
J.C. Newman was established in Cleveland in 1895 and moved to Tampa in 1954.
They purchased Cuesta-Rey two years later.
Today, J.C. Newman is Tampa’s last cigar factory, which is why Newman said they are compelled to run the museum.
Artifacts on display in the 1,750-square-foot museum spread over three floors include an old humidor, cigar labels and a J.C. Newman financial statement from 1912.
“Every once in a while, we’ll run across an old box of cigars that someone’s grandfather saved,” Newman said. “However, almost always those cigars are either broken, have holes in them from tobacco beetles and/or (are) only partially full. What makes this box unique is that all 100 cigars are in perfect condition. These would absolutely burn.”
How would they taste?
“After about 10 years, cigars lose a lot of their flavor,” Newman laughed. “So, after 100 years, not very good.”
If you go
Located in the J.C. Newman factory at 2701 N. 16th St. in Tampa, the museum is open to the public, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They also offer a 75-minute guided factory tour. Those can be booked online at jcnewman.com.