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The decline of the luxury cigar market that began in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as more and more tobacco consumers turned to cheaper cigarettes, weakened the position of workers even further. Rolling machines and less expensive products such as cigarettes became the more efficient alternative that spelled the end of the traditional cigar factories.
After two decades of decline, the refashioned cigar industry began to boom again in the 1950s as production in Tampa's factories soared, but the number of workers simultaneously declined. After the Castro-led Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s, the U.S. embargo against Cuban goods, including tobacco, in 1962, dealt another blow to the area's cigar makers, particularly the specialty hand-rolling factories that had survived previous hard times by continuing to produce high-quality authentic Cuban style cigars.
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Mr. Talmaege Culmer at work rolling cigars at the "Key West Cigar Factory" in Pirate's Alley, Key West, Florida. Mr. Talmaege was the last of the original Key West cigar makers.
Other cigar factories managed to remain profitable, with some now using Dominican tobacco and catering to the changing trends in cigar demand while staying true to the proud Tampa tradition of making high-quality cigars. Tobacco products remained an important industry in Florida and the cigar and cigarette makers continued to wield political and economic sway in the state throughout the 20th century.
The dynamic cultural life of Ybor City was in decline for decades until urban renewal efforts in the 1960s marked the final chapter in the life of the community as it was originally. Hundreds of buildings were bulldozed in efforts to clear out substandard housing and to make room for interstate highways which were routed directly through the hearts of Ybor City and West Tampa. Although many original social club buildings and factories remained standing, the communities that had supported them were gone forever.
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"My name is Rafael Martinez. I was born in Havana, Cuba. My father was a cigar-roller in Cuba and I worked for La Carona Cigar Factory before I came from Cuba. I learned the art right there at the factory. The best cigars are made right now in Miami. Because we, the experts, the cigar rollers are here, and we have really tried very hard...
In Cuba, the women stripped the leaves only. That was women's work and only women did that. My wife does this here. We sort the leaves by color and size."
Cigar making remains a vital aspect of Florida folklife and culture. Master cigar makers demonstrated the art of traditional cigar rolling at Florida folk festivals beginning in the 1960s and Ybor City continues to honor the impact of the cigar industry through the Cigar Heritage Festival. Custom cigar making also continued in Miami and Key West where it has survived for nearly 200 years.
Despite growing interest among historic preservationists and a Florida public increasingly aware of the importance of the cigar industry to their state's history, the violence, labor disputes, and political unrest that characterized much of the cigar industry's history remained largely overlooked until recent scholarly re-examination of the importance of Florida's cigar industry and communities of cigar workers in American labor and immigration history.
Although all of the original factories in Key West have long since been shuttered, hand-rolled and specialty cigar shops are a prominent attraction in Key West as the city and its millions of annual visitors rediscover the legacy of the Cuban cigar tradition and the importance of the cigar factories in the city's history.
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