With its 125th anniversary on the horizon, Tampa's last cigar factory wants the world to know its history

The last working cigar factory in Ybor City is undergoing renovations before they celebrate their 125th anniversary in 2020. The purpose is to make the cigar factory a tourist destination and to remind everyone that Tampa is the “Cigar City.”

Between the hard hats and exposed red brick walls, J.C. Newman Cigar Company is still producing up to 60,000 cigars a day.

“We’re the only one left still being owned-and-operated by a family,” explained Eric Newman, grandson of the founder, Julius Caeser Newman. “My grandfather always wanted to be the last man at the craps table. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but we’re still here.”

Next year, Eric explained, the factory will have a large museum immersing visitors in Tampa’s history and the history of the cigar industry. There will also be factory tours, where people can witness cigars being made by humans and machines.

When Julius Caeser Newman started the company 124 years ago, they were hand-rolling cigars. The machines were added in the 1930s. Eric said his grandfather was one of the first to bring those machines into the U.S.

Today, those same machines are being used, and it takes up to four months to train an employee to use them.

“It looks easy, but it takes a lot of skill," Eric said.

The machines have 10,000 moving parts, and make millions of cigars a year. In comparison, the cigar makers who continue hand-rolling at J.C. Newman Cigar Company to this day can make up to 100 cigars per day.

“Same machine today,” he said, “almost 90 years old.”

The building itself is much older. It was built in 1910, and they want to bring it back to its beauty in time for J.C. Newman Cigar Company’s anniversary. They’ve ripped off drywall, revealing the original red brick walls from underneath. Those walls will stay put.

They also discovered a secret stairwell

One room in the building is where a manager used to count the money at the end of the day. During those days, there was a mafia group that would target each cigar factory in the 1930s. 

“He had a secret stairs -- we just discovered a couple of months ago -- that when he was starting to get robbed, he ran down the stairs and into a vault,” Eric explained. “We never knew this existed.”

Those stairs were discreetly covered with what appeared to be part of the floor. Downstairs, Eric said, was a safe for the manager to lock up the cash. It’s possible he may have hid down there, too.

Eric said he cannot wait to share that piece of history, and much more, when the factory completes its upgrades next year. 

“There once was 150 cigar factories in Tampa. We’re the last operating cigar factory in Tampa, last traditional cigar factory in the U.S.,” he said. “Cigars make Tampa special. We want to showcase that this is indeed the ‘Cigar City.’”