Cigars, Revolution, and the Cuban Connection

A cigar is only a cigar, unless it is used to start a war.

The popular story that the Cuban revolution started with a secret message rolled into a West Tampa cigar is likely a myth. What is undeniably true, however, is the way that cigar workers in Tampa helped shape the outcome of Cuba's War of Independence while, at the same time, building a community of their very own.

According to local legend, it was on this site in 1895 that a secret message with orders to begin the Cuban uprising against Spain was hidden in a cigar rolled by Blas O’Halloran. This cigar was allegedly smuggled into Cuba, starting a war that would bring independence to this island nation. The story of the cigar that started a revolution is, more likely than not, a myth. What is undeniable, however, are the deep cultural and historical connections tying West Tampa to Cuba.

During the time of Spanish occupation, many Cubans fled to Tampa, seeking refuge and a better way of life. They found work in the newly built cigar factories of Ybor City and West Tampa, including the O’Halloran Cigar Co. They may have left Cuba, but Cuba never left them. Not wavering from their loyalty, Cubans would donate a day’s pay each week to support Cuba’s war effort. Cuba gained its independence from Spain in 1898.

Cubans from both Ybor City and West Tampa were connected through heritage, culture, language, and trade. Cigar makers from both sides of the Hillsborough River worked hard at their trade. They fought hard to protect themselves from unfair labor practices and many joined unions. Negotiations and strikes were frequent. At times, cigar factories became the target for vandalism and arson. The O’Halloran Cigar Factory was targeted on October 4, 1901 by an arsonist. The factory, the surrounding businesses, and homes burned down due to incendiarism. Although the factory was rebuilt, O’Halloran Cigar Co. did not move back in.

After the cigar factories on this site closed, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a good friend of Col. Hugh Macfarlane, selected this site to build the first free library in Hillsborough County in 1914. Carnegie granted $17,000 to fund this project. The city of West Tampa agreed to take on the maintenance and operation costs. This building, constructed in the Neo-Classical revivalist style, was a symbol of education and freedom for its residents. It contained a Spanish-language reading area to accommodate the Latino community. Today, the original building still stands and has been expanded to further meet the needs of the community.