The cigar king who put the Ybor in Ybor City was born 200 years ago. How would he celebrate?

Ybor City has honored its founder in a number of ways, including a statue.  [Times files]
Ybor City has honored its founder in a number of ways, including a statue. [Times files]
Published Aug. 31, 2018

Vicente Martinez Ybor, the Spanish entrepreneur who moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa and founded a diverse community of immigrants that still bears his name, would turn 200 on Sept. 7.

To honor his bicentennial birthday, the Ybor City Museum State Park is throwing a party 5 p,m. to 8 p.m. Friday.

Those attending will enjoy live music, refreshments, domino games, cigar rolling demonstrations and other activities reflecting Ybor City's Cuban, Spanish and Italian cultural heritage. Admission is free.

But how would Ybor the man want to celebrate?

Where would he go? Who would he invite? What would he drink?

We posed those questions and others to three Tampa historians and a descendant of the pioneer himself. Here are exceprts from their responses.

Q. How would he dress for the party?

Joe Howden, history tour guide: As an elder man of wealth, Señor Ybor acquired taste in fashion. So, he would wear a three-piece summer suit with vest and bow tie, constructed of lightweight material. His hat would be a straw boater, regarded as formal but not too formal.

Q. Where in modern Ybor might he wish to enjoy a birthday dinner?

Rafael Martinez-Ybor, great-grandson: He would choose the Columbia Restaurant, eat Paella Valenciana, and enjoy a flamenco show. Of course, with the approval of Richard Gonzmart, his dedicated dog Roby —Ybor spelled backward — would also be there eating a good plate of black beans and rice with onions.

Q. Who would he invite to the celebration?

Robert Kerstein, former historian for Hillsborough County: He'd invite his extended family, friends who were business owners and managers, and laborers in his business enterprises. Ybor often invited some of his workers to celebrate holidays at his home on his almost 30-acre property, located at 11th Avenue and 14th Street, so it would be natural for them to join him for his birthday. Even after he died, his wife retained some allegiance with the cigar workers. For example, she donated money to feed the unemployed cigar workers during the Spanish-American War.

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Q. When it came time for the birthday toast, would Ybor prefer beer, wine or liquor?

Rodney Kite-Powell, Tampa Bay History Center curator: Since he founded the first brewery in Florida, he'd have a Tampa-style lager from Cigar City Brewing, which would have been like the lager his brewery produced. Ales, particularly pale ales and India pale ales, had fallen out of favor by the late 19th century, so they would probably not make the list.

Ybor: He was not much of a drinker, but for his bicentennial he would order the best wine from his native Spain. He'd also set up a large piñata filled with cigars to be broken at midnight.

Q. After dinner, would he prefer a bar, club or cafe?

Howden: The social clubs had big dance floors, filled most nights with people dancing. The music and technology might be different, but Mr. Ybor would find a dance club familiar and likely would love to watch the señoritas dance.

QUESTION: Is there a Tampa accent? A Florida accent?

Gary Mormino, co-founder, University of South Florida St. Petersburg Florida studies program: Being a gentleman and a Spaniard, he would prefer a dance club, but also a cafe. Ybor City during the founder's time was renowned for coffee bars. Old Spaniards and Sicilians I interviewed mentioned coffee in the same breath as the American dream.

Q. Once out and about in Ybor, what would he think of the chickens that still roam freely?

Kerstein: Ybor would have no trouble with chickens. After all, chickens were plentiful in Ybor City. He might even lobby the state Legislature to allow cockfighting, which had once been prevalent in Ybor City. He was against prohibition on the grounds workers should be allowed to imbibe. He might argue that drinking and cockfighting were complementary activities. Perhaps he would propose a variation of cockfighting that was more humane to the cocks. They could wear protective vests and the victor would be declared before any serious injuries were inflicted.

Q. If a bar debate began over the Tampa Bay Rays stadium proposed for Ybor City, where would he stand?

Ybor: Vicente and his wife Mercedes were quiet people who enjoyed family life. However, he would not have been against it. He was in favor of anything that would prosper Ybor City.

Mormino: While I do not have a note card confirming this, I am confident Martinez-Ybor sponsored a cigar factory team in Key West. While so much has changed from the glorious days of Ybor City, don Vicente Martinez Ybor would have been ecstatic that civic leaders, who once fulminated against Ybor City for everything from bolita to gangland murders to anarchists, chose Ybor City as the site for a Major League Baseball team.

Q. At the end of the night, how would he return home?

Mormino: Since don Vicente Martinez Ybor built his own streetcar, he would have taken a streetcar named nostalgia.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.