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Ybor's great grandson refurbishes mausoleum to maintain legacy

Don Sigel pressure washes the mausoleum of Ybor City founder Vicente Ybor-Martinez as he begins the restoration work on it.
Don Sigel pressure washes the mausoleum of Ybor City founder Vicente Ybor-Martinez as he begins the restoration work on it.
Published Jul. 10, 2017

TAMPA — For the fourth time in about 35 years, the tomb of Ybor City's founder has undergone a makeover, thanks to a relative he never knew.

The stucco outer shell has been repaired and painted a gleaming white, making the mausoleum stand out among the old markers in downtown Tampa's Oaklawn Cemetery.

"What it means to me, I guess, it's my heritage,'' said Rafael Martinez-Ybor, 88, who pays for the upkeep of the tomb in Oaklawn Cemetery and also a statue in Ybor City of his great-grandfather, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, who brought the cigar industry to Tampa in the late 1800s.

Rafael Martinez-Ybor, a retired banker, stopped by the historic downtown Tampa cemetery earlier this week to inspect the work done by Don Sigel, who has restored the tomb several times and also takes care of the statue of the cigar baron in Ybor City.

"I always want him shining,'' said the great-grandson, talking about the statue. "Don is the one that keeps him shining.''

Vicente Martinez-Ybor moved his factory from Key West to Tampa in 1885, and much of the industry followed. About 200 factories were operating in Tampa, known as "Cigar City,'' during the heyday in the 1920s. Most went bust over the next two decades, as cigar use faded with the rise in popularity of cigarettes.

Martinez-Ybor died in 1896. Many of Tampa's businesses closed down to honor him on the day of his funeral.

In the same crypt are the remains of his grandson, Vicente M. Ybor y Ruiz, who died at age 3 in 1906. Sisters of Ybor's wife, Mercedes, are buried in the plots beside it. Mercedes, who died in the 1930s, is buried in Cuba.

Martinez-Ybor, born in Cuba, moved to Tampa at age 7. His family moved to Miami in 1944, and no family members remained in Tampa to take care of the tomb. Martinez-Ybor returned to Tampa in 1978 and took it upon himself to refurbish and maintain it.

Though he never knew his great-grandfather, he developed a connection through his grandfather.

"My grandfather was his youngest son. I was raised with him; he was my mentor. He would always talk to me about his father and what he meant to the city of Tampa.''

The tomb is made of poured concrete and concrete blocks covered by a wire lath and stucco, Sigel said. Problems begin when a crack forms in the exterior and water seeps in under the stucco. Sigel has to remove and redo the damaged sections, and he applies a new coat of white paint with each renovation. It has been redone four times since 1983, Martinez-Ybor said, noting that it needs refurbishing about every eight or nine years. He worries about it deteriorating after he is gone.

"I do not know what will happen after I am no longer on this good earth,'' he wrote in an e-mail, "but while I am here my great-grandfather will not be forgotten.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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