By Christy Swift
Photos Courtesy Cigar Factory
There aren’t many businesses where they’re doing things the same way they did a hundred years ago. At the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory, however, they’ve caught time in a bottle… or rather, a wrapper.
“Walking through our factory is like walking through a time capsule. Nobody does this anymore. We’re making cigars on antique hand-operated cigar machines that were made in the Great Depression.”
That’s Eric Newman talking, third generation owner and president of the J.C. Newman Cigar Company located in Ybor City, Tampa. He’s the grandson of founder Julius Caesar Newman and has the pleasure of co-owning and -operating the only surviving traditional cigar company from the early 1900s in the entire United States, along with his brother, Bobby, and son, Drew.
“It takes 300 pairs of hands to make a cigar from the time the seed is planted to when the tobacco is used in the cigar,” he says. Over 150 employees hand-roll or use machines like the ones Eric’s grandfather purchased during the Great Depression to make about 12.5 million cigars per year. While it is labor-intensive, it makes the cigars special, and the factory has become a tourist attraction in downtown Ybor City.
“You don’t need a passport to see how these cigars are made,” says Eric. “It’s pretty cool.”
The factory is located at 2701 North 16th Street in Tampa, but you won’t need your GPS to find it. Just look (or listen) for the big clock tower. Known throughout the years as “El Reloj” (Spanish for “clock” or “watch”), the building used to be the city’s timekeeper in an age where most people worked in the cigar industry and didn’t have timepieces of their own.
The over 110-year old factory was purchased by J.C. Newman in 1954 when he moved his cigar business from Ohio down to Tampa to be closer to Cuban tobacco distribution. The Newman family executed a major renovation back in 2002, including getting the 1500-pound bell working again. El Reloj is open to the public on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., although visitors are strongly encouraged to arrive before 3:00 p.m. when cigar rolling stops. It’s free to visit the cigar museum, theater, rolling room, and factory store. More in-depth guided factory tours are available for $15 per adult and $12 per person for seniors, students, and veterans.
The tours include a trip down to the basement, where the tobacco leaves are processed and the aging and archive rooms are located, and the second floor, which is home to the bulk of the manufacturing— that’s where you can see employees using antique machinery. The interactive theater offers videos on the Newman family, how cigars are made, and the history of box label art, among others. The third floor is a “factory within a factory” where employees do the hand-rolling.
The tourism aspect of the business is relatively new to the company and took a little getting used to. “Five to seven thousand people come through here per year,” Eric says. “The majority of these people are not cigar smokers. Our employees can’t believe people actually want to pay money to see what they do every day. We tell them, ‘Yeah, you’re important!’ They are proud of what they do.”
J.C. Newman represents the quintessential American Dream story. In 1890, the Newmans were recent immigrants to the United States, and J.C.’s mother, Hannah, paid $3.00 per month for 14-year-old J.C. to apprentice in the cigar trade. After working as a journeyman cigar maker for three years, J.C. was laid off during a severe recession. Facing unemployment as an immigrant, J.C. decided to follow the American
Dream and start his own company.
In 1895, J.C. used some old boards to create a cigar table in the family barn, borrowed $50 for tobacco, and received his first order for 500 cigars from the family grocer. His first brand of cigars was named “A.B.C.” an acronym for “Akron, Bedford, and Cleveland”—the name of the local streetcar line. By 1916, he had added two factories in Marion and Lorain, Ohio and had 700 employees.
After World War II, J.C. son's, Stanford and Millard, came back from service and joined the company. J.C. wanted to move the company south to Tampa due to its world-class reputation for producing high-quality, premium cigars, and for its access to Cuban tobacco. Stanford scouted the area and discovered El Reloj in the middle of Tampa’s central cigar-making district, Ybor City.
The company, along with the industry, has seen its share of struggles, including the Great Depression, the Cuban embargo, excessive taxes, smoking bans, and the rapid consolidation of the cigar industry. In 1985, Stanford and his sons, Eric and Bobby bought out their relatives’ shares and continued to grow the company, partnering with overseas cigar manufacturers and even opening an 800-employee factory in Nicaragua while continuing its own tradition at home. In 1895, the U.S. had over 40,000 federally licensed cigar manufacturers.
Four generations and over 125 years later, J.C. Newman Cigar Company is the only one that is still owned and operated by the founding family.
“We love to have people visit us,” Eric said. “Come walk back in time. There aren’t many factories left. There aren’t many products being made the same way they were being made a century ago.” He loves to see the looks on the faces of people as they walk through what his family has preserved over 127 years. “It’s like taking a kid to Disney World for the first time. It makes you feel good.”
The J.C. Newman Cigar Company retail store offers a variety of cigars and merchandise you won’t find anywhere else. Cigars can bring people together, Eric adds. “It’s a very hectic, stressful world. When you’re smoking a cigar, all is right with the world. In a cigar lounge you can find people from all walks of life. One could be a CEO, one could be a custodian, but by the time they finish that cigar, they are best friends.”
Find out more about the J.C. Newman Cigar Company or book a tour at www.jcnewman.com.
Leave A Comment