Charles the Great
Cigar Factory
Cigar fans flocked to “cigar country’s” 6th Annual ProCigar Festival to visit tobacco farms and cigar factories, mingle with the makers, and help them celebrate the Dominican Republic’s dominance in handmade cigar production.

By Gary Heathcott

Florida’s cigar legacy is a rich, cross-cultural amalgam created by émigré Spaniards and Cubans. Living in the heartland of Dixie, they established Florida’s first major 19th century industry. Beginning their careers as cigar rollers, native Cubans and émigré Spaniards in the mid-1800s migrated to the United States, creating the “clear Havana” cigar industry which eventually made Tampa the cigar capital of the United States.

Tampa’s Charles the Great cigar factory, constructed in 1903 by pioneer cigar manufacturer Salvador Rodriguez, and later owned by Sr. Francisco Sierra - both Spanish émigrés - is emblematic of this history. The magnificent three story brick structure was saved from demolition in 1964 by the Arturo Fuente family, who recently completed a painstaking restoration and rehabilitation coinciding with their own 100th anniversary as cigar makers. The lives of Rodriguez and Sierra, meanwhile, were intertwined with Tampa’s historical legacy as a cigar center.


Tampa cigar maker Francisco Sierra Sr., seated far right, with his brothers in their homeland of Asturias, Spain. Sierra was a longtime owner of Tampa’s Charles the Great cigar factory.

In 1817, the Spanish Government ended a Royal monopoly, which, for decades controlled the production of Cuban cigars in a crown-owned factory in Seville. After 1817, when Cuba was opened to international trade, domestic cigar production surged at an unprecedented rate. Within a decade, an economic renaissance virtually transformed Cuba’s economy. Newly constructed rail lines opened previously uncultivated lands for agricultural production of tropical fruits and tobacco. Hundreds of small tobacco fields were transformed into gigantic plantations, stimulating an emerging Cuban cigar industry. By the 1840s, campesinos displaced by large tobacco haciendas became the genesis for a new middle class of skilled cigar artisans. They found gainful employment in new cigar factories opening in Havana and exported Cuban cigars soon filled the humidors of connoisseur smokers in the United States and Europe.

Facing high unemployment in Spain but with jobs available in Cuba, 15-year-old Salvador Rodriguez left Asturias, crossing the Atlantic to Spain’s coveted “Pearl of the Antilles.” By 1846, he was enrolled in a lengthy cigar apprenticeship, acquiring the expertise of a skilled cigar maker. Not all cigar apprentices were adept in learning the skills of cigar making, but Salvador quickly mastered the art. When Havana’s prestigious “La Carolina” cigar factory opened in 1858, the skilled cigar artisan was was quickly hired. Salvador continued perfecting cigar making skills until 1868, when Cuba’s first civil war for independence from Spain erupted.

Destined to be a renowned Tampa cigar manufacturer, Rodriguez’s legacy - the Charles the Great factory - still silhouettes Tampa’s skyline. A weekly trade journal, The Tobacco Leaf, once described Rodriguez as “The Dean of the Clear Havana Cigar Industry,” thanks to a lifetime of hard labor and a determination to produce only the finest quality cigars.


After 1824, only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained as part of Spain’s once-powerful New World Empire. The Crown was determined to maintain control of Cuba, whatever the cost. After opening Cuba to world trade in the 1817 Decreto Real, the island transformed to become the cigar capital of the world.

In 1858, one of Havana’s most prestigious Havana cigar factories hired Salvador Rodriguez as one of their first cigar artisans. There, he perfected his skills as a cigar maker.

The American Lithographic Company produced the first proof book cigar box label for Clear Havana cigars in the early 1890s. The largest competitors to Cuban cigars, they were made from Cuban tobacco by exiled Cuban cigar makers in Florida and sold for a third less since they paid no export or import taxes.

World renowned lithographers Klingen-berg Druker in Detmold, Germany produced fine stone lithographs for Cuban and American cigar manufacturers who were capable of affording the exquisite 12-color cigar label art.

Cuba’s 1868 civil war had a catastrophic effect on cigar production as unemployment hit Cuba’s emerging middle class cigar artisans. When they were conscripted to fight against their fellow countrymen, thousands lined the docks of Havana for steamer passage to the United States. During a decade of civil war, Cuba’s cigar industry was devastated, but the massive exodus to the United States created a unique opportunity for enterprising émigré cigar makers and manufacturers.

Among the refugees in 1871 were Salvador Rodriguez and Eduardo Hidalgo Gato (founder of Key West’s Gatoville.) In New York City and Key West, skilled Cuban émigré cigar artisans quickly found employment when enterprising Spanish and Cuban émigré cigar manufacturers pioneered a new cigar market. They produced what became known as “clear Havana” cigars - made entirely from duty-free Cuban leaf made by Cuban exiles in the U.S. that sold for a third less than imported Cuban cigars.

When he arrived in New York, Rodriguez was immediately offered a partnership with Spanish émigré cigar factory owners of the Celestino Palacio & Company, one of the first clear Havana cigar manufacturers in New York and Key West. Enterprising young Salvador quickly transformed from a cigar roller to a maverick entrepreneur. According to the December 17, 1902 edition of The Tobacco Leaf, he was: “One of only two or three still in business who had the temerity to offer the public home-made clear Havana cigars in the early 1870s. He started business at about the same time as Ignacio Haya, Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, Miguel Alvarez, Faustino Lozano, and Ysidro Pendas...” at a time “when the clear Havana industry of America was yet in an embryo state.”

When Cuba’s Civil War ended in 1878, Spain - desperate for revenue - sold Cuban tobacco duty-free to the emerging “clear Havana” cigar industry in New York and Key West. As an agent for Celestino Palacio, Salvador frequently traveled the New York-Key West-Havana triangle via steamers. He was soon known as an expert buyer of Cuba’s finest tobacco. In 1887, the company relocated production from New York to Key West at Factory No. 60 on Julia Street, while distribution offices remained in New York City.

By the mid 1870s, Key West out-produced all of New York City’s cigar factories. Its warm, humid climate was a perfect prerequisite for maintaining a pliable tobacco leaf. In addition, its proximity to Cuba only 90 miles away established Cayo Hueso (as Key West was known by Cubans) as the undisputed clear Havana cigar capital of the World.

When Henry Bradley Plant opened a rail line connecting New York to Tampa in 1886, a new era in cigar production emerged on Florida’s east coast. Plant’s railroad offered quick access to distribution centers in New York while Plant’s steamers guaranteed Tampa cigar manufacturers all the Cuban tobacco needed for cigar production. In contrast, Key West had to rely on erratic shipping lines to New York distributors, while shipments of cigar boxes were frequently delayed. Meanwhile, Florida’s new Cuban enclaves, Ybor City (1886) and West Tampa (1892) had efficient transportation to both Cuba as well as distribution offices in New York City. A New York-Havana-Tampa business triangle soon made Tampa Bay the world’s new center for clear Havana production.

With years of expert training and business experience, Salvador Rodriguez perfected skills for cigar producing, tobacco acquisition, and cigar manufacturing. It was time to establish a new phase in his career. In 1891, the 35-year-old joined Tampa’s pioneer clear Havana entrepreneurs. His marketing ingenuity and business acumen was a tremendous asset to Tampa’s growing clear Havana trade.


In a “suburb” of Ybor City called East Tampa, Sr. Rodriguez opened a three-story wooden cigar factory with a large basement on Livingston Avenue in February, 1891. Basements in cigar factories were used to store and moisten Cuban tobacco leaves prior to sending the tobacco upstairs where the tobacco was hand rolled into cigars. The factory, built from local cypress wood, had 200 windows for proper ventilation and ample daylight allowing workers to separate tobacco leaves by color. The sunlight assured every cigar rolled and placed in a box had a uniform color and appearance, a prerequisite for a perfect box of cigars. Land surrounding the factory was landscaped with Chinese umbrella trees and orange trees, while the interior was said to more closely resemble a dwelling than a factory.

Utilizing careful attention to detail, this was the most innovative wooden cigar factory in Florida. Built on a corner, it had well-maintained fences and newly built sidewalks. Outside electric lights illuminated the corner at night, “presenting an attractive appearance, even to the casual passerby,” according to The Tobacco Leaf, April 16, 1891, while the interior was fitted with electric lights for use after sundown.

In 1891, Salvador Rodriguez built a three story wooden cigar factory on Livingston Ave. in East Tampa, near Palmetto Beach. It was replaced 12 years later as his business empire grew. (Photo courtesy of Tobacco Merchants Association.)

The new factory was christened “Charles the Great,” the brand name for Sr. Rodriguez’s new line of cigars which had an historic flair. Produced as a tribute to the Emperor Charlemagne, it was the only clear Havana cigar with an English name. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was common for cigar manufacturers to place images of historical persons or prestigious celebrities on lithographic imagery for cigar label art. This form of advertising art included cameo portraits or signatures of historical figures or contemporary celebrities, a touch of sophistication with popular appeal to cigar smokers.

Using the image of Charlemagne for a new cigar brand, Sr. Rodriguez conscripted the prestigious Klingenberg Printers in Detmold, Germany to produce one of the finest detailed cigar labels in the world, “Charles the Great.” Only those manufacturers who could afford the best label art conscripted Klingenberg to produce labels and posters. The “Charles the Great” label was an exquisite example of late nineteenth century stone lithographic artistry at its finest.

The original twelve-color lithographic print contains a cameo portrait of the bearded, regally-adorned emperor Charlemagne. An embossed, gold gilded background of sun rays emanate from his portrait. On one side is a vignette of Charles the Great in full regalia, knighting one of his subjects. Above him is his royal crest with the blue and red initials “S” and “R,” for Salvador Rodriguez. On the other side, the emperor is portrayed on a white stallion in a battlefield, attacking a Norsemen - his formidable enemy - with his gilded royal Crest, with three embossed fleurs-de-lis on a blue background, nearby.

Rodriguez’s successful business acumen in marketing enabled him to produce several other new cigar brands, including Los Tres, (the first three Spaniards to land in Cuba with Columbus) and Infinito. In honor of his Spanish heritage, Rodriguez selected the beautiful (and controversial) princess of Spain, Infanta Eulalia, for a celebrity brand. It would become one of his trademark cigars.

Cigars rolled at the Charles the Great factory were so popular nationally that twelve years after opening, the wooden factory could not keep up with market demands, and Sr. Rodriguez was known internationally as the premier cigar manufacturer of clear Havana cigars. He divided his time between Cuba, visiting tobacco fields and purchasing leaf; the Tampa factory, overseeing production; and the shipping offices and headquarters based in New York City, overseeing the commercial departments of his operation. Given his extremely busy travel schedule, Rodriguez rarely ever dealt face-to-face with his own customers.

“The manufacturing of clear Havana cigars is more than a business to Salvador Rodriguez - it is his hobby. And that is undoubtedly why Charles the Great cigars are so good,” wrote The Tobacco Leaf in December 17, 1902.


As a growing market for his cigars continued, Rodriguez planned construction of a landmark three-story brick cigar factory. On March 20, 1903, ground was broken in Ybor City - which maintained its name after incorporated into Tampa in 1888 - at the corner of Second Avenue and 22nd Street, between the tracks of the Seaboard Air line and the Atlantic Coast Line. The new location adjacent to two railroad lines was the perfect site for access to distribution offices in New York City and to Tampa’s docks for Cuban tobacco.

As reported in the March 20, 1903 issue of Tobacco, The new factory was “…nearer the business centre of Tampa... more easily accessible, both for employees and visitors. While there is nothing ostentatious in the plans, there has been sufficient departure from the lines followed in most of the cigar factories built in Tampa, to give the Charles the Great factory a distinctive individuality and character of its own.

“The structure is to be of brick, and will have a frontage of 50 feet and a length of 100 feet. There will be three stories above the basement, while the basement will extend beneath the entire length of the building and will be fitted with a number of spacious vaults, equipped with the most approved devices for keeping stock in perfect condition. These vaults will be utilized both for the storage of the raw material and the finished product...Special care has been taken to provide for an abundance of light on every floor and also in the basement. Similar attention has also been paid to the matter of ventilation and sanitation. In a word, the structure is to be thoroughly modern in every detail, and nothing has been omitted that would tend to make it a model establishment in all respects. The fact that the business of Salvador Rodriguez has attained to such proportions as to demand the erection of a factory building of such dimensions must prove a source of genuine satisfaction to his many friends and customers in all parts of the country, and at the same time it must be particularly gratifying to the people of Tampa where the manufacturing department of Mr. Rodriguez’s business has been located since 1891.”

Another nationally syndicated tobacco trade journal, Tobacco Leaf, described the new factory in its August 3, 1904 issue: “It is equipped with everything necessary or valuable in the turning out of the finest grade of Havana cigars, and in the erection of the building special attention was given to the convenience and comfort of the employees. A special feature designed after Mr. Rodriguez’s own idea, is an underground vault connected with the main building, in which the leaf is kept preserved as in Cuba. The first floor is devoted to packing and stripping, the second to the actual work of cigar making, having the capacity to offer 500 hands, and the third floor is devoted to the care of the fillers.”

The Salvador Rodriguez factory produced hand-rolled clear Havana cigars throughout the early 1900s, but World War 1 disrupted production to a more modest level. By the war’s end, cigarettes sent to soldiers during the conflict had created a new tobacco market. By the 1920s, women openly showed their independence by smoking in public. Cigarette sales and mass produced machine-made cigars soon impacted the more expensive hand rolled cigar production, referred to as “The Spanish Method.” As the cigar market changed, Rodriguez retired to his home in New York City where he died in 1926. Prior to his death, he sold the Charles the Great factory, leaving an estate in excess of one million dollars.


In 1924, the Charles the Great building was acquired by another Tampa pioneer cigar entrepreneur, a Spanish émigré who relocated from Cuba, Francisco Sierra Sr. In the mid 1880s, Francisco Sierra Sr. (referred to as Frank in tobacco publications) joined young enterprising Spaniards who departed Spain for a life of adventure and prosperity in Cuba.

Left: Francisco Sierra Jr. (on left) and brother Celestino with a Charles the Great Sampler trade show display. Right: Albert John Sierra (on left) and his brother George Sierra.

Francisco left Asturias, Spain as a young teenager, learning the cigar business in Cuba. After perfecting the skills of producing and distributing cigars, he moved to Tampa in 1907. His knowledge of cigar production was combined with the distribution talents of his partner Edward Wodiska, a “Talent Agent of Actors & Actress” in New York. Wodiska, a most colorful character, often appeared in cigar bars dressed in a black cape, promoting cigars while quoting Shakespeare. He was convinced he was the reincarnation of Louis XIV. Wodiska and Sr. Sierra Sr., the more business minded of the two founders, opened their cigar factory in Tampa instead of Key West, since labor unions there controlled most of the factories. At that time, Tampa was virtually union-free, with a great port capable of receiving unlimited shipments of Cuban tobacco.

The new company was called Corral-Wodiska, y Ca., Inc. Francisco married the oldest of six daughters of Manuel Corral, Maria. He used her maiden name, Corral, to name the factory, in honor of Maria and her family. Their first cigar brand was “Julia Marlow,” a beautiful and famous New York Actress, and close friend of Mr. Wodiska. Her cameo portrait and signature adorned their “Julia Marlow” stone lithographic cigar label, originally printed by Klingenberg Printers in Detmold, Germany. (The image was reproduced by American Lithography after World War 1, and reprinted as a photo mechanical label in 1926, produced by Consolidated lithography.)

Francisco Sierra Sr. continued cigar production at Corral Wodiska through World War 1, but he was eager for a new business venture in the 1920s. There were too many relatives working at Corral-Wodiska, limiting income distribution and creating payroll problems. Francisco saw an opportunity to acquire the Charles the Great factory and it’s well known cigar brands during the early years of the “Roaring ‘20s.” He bought the factory and all rights to its cigar brands in 1924 by selling Florida Capitol stock at $100 a share, with a total value of $500,000.

A newly established Salvador Rodriguez Corporation continued selling the popular brands Charles the Great, Los Tres, and Infanta Euliana as hand rolled clear Havana cigars throughout the 1920s. The August 17, 1929 issue of The Tobacco Leaf reported the Salvador Rodriguez Corporation was in full production: “Frank (Francisco) Sierra, in Cuba for a couple of weeks... is buying wrappers and fillers. Business has been increasing, Celestino Sierra said, and the factory is making more cigars in July and August this year than last year.” Frank (Francisco) Sierra reported to The Tobacco Leaf, (September 7, 1929) that, “after several weeks spent on a buying trip in Cuba, that the demand for special selections of quality Cuban tobacco from Cuba made it difficult to obtain.”

Then came the Great Depression, when the number of hand-rolled cigar artisans declined as did the market for fine quality cigars. Production slowly transferred from hand rolled to cheaper machine made five cent cigars. During the 1930s, both hand rolled and machine cigars were made from quality Cuban tobacco leaf.

As prosperity returned to the nation in the early 1940s, Albert “Al” John Sierra expanded national sales with a chain with men known as “jobbers.” They distributed cigars to smoke shops in major cities throughout the United States. He continued traveling to Cuba, overseeing the acquisition of quality tobacco. Francisco Sr.’s four sons were an integral part of the family business as they reached adulthood. Francisco Jr. was Vice President of Operations. Celestino was vice president, treasurer, and bookkeeper, George was Vice President of Production and Distribution. Six months of the year, Albert (Al) John Sierra, Vice President of National sales, traveled extensively by train to distribution locations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, New York, Atlantic City and Dallas. He always carried sample cigars in steamer trunks continually refurbished with fresh merchandise while on the road. The other half of the year, Albert (Al) John worked at the home office, improving sales and overseeing factory operations.

As the early 1940s progressed, cigar sales increased with the outbreak of World War II from U.S. Government cigar orders for military PX stores. “By early 1944, U.S. Government orders represented 20 percent of cigars manufactured in Tampa. By April, the Government demanded an additional 32 million cigars a month, representing 30 percent of all sales.” (The Tobacco Leaf, April 15, 1944).

When the war ended, the government refused to pay for cigars stored for years in un-humidified warehouses and returned them to manufactures. Gigantic supplies of “Charles the Great” cigars conscripted by the government were returned to the Sierras. They were dry, infested with bugs, unfit to smoke. Francisco Sierra Sr., proud of his company’s excellent reputation for quality cigars refused to sell a bad product, so thousands of Charles the Great cigars were loaded onto a huge barge and dumped into Tampa Bay.

When Sierra Sr. passed away in 1948, cigar production steadily declined but the company continued manufacturing under the direction of his sons. However, the sale of cigarettes and the popularity of cheap machine made cigars after the war resulted in an overall demise in the cigar trade. By 1951, The Charles the Great factory was no longer profitable. It was sold to DeSoto Shoe Service which used the building for storage and shipping. The shoe company lasted for only a few years and was dissolved in the mid 1950s when the building was abandoned. Remains of cigar machines and equipment left over from Salvador Rodriguez, Inc. remained in the upper floors of the factory.

In the late 1950s the abandoned cigar factory was in need of repair. By the early 1960s, urban renewal projects in Ybor City tore down hundreds of cigar workers cottages and numerous factory buildings as a new interstate highway cut into the heart of Ybor City.

In the early 1960s, Bill Finck Sr., owner of the San Antonio-based Finck Cigar Company, arrived in Tampa to purchase used cigar equipment and machines. Finck, a frequent visitor to Tampa, owned a family cigar factory in operation since 1893, and purchased all the old cigar machinery abandoned on the third floor from an agent for the DeSoto Shoe Service

In an unexpected bonanza, the agent tossed in the Charles the Great brand, along with millions of cigar bands and thousands of cigar labels as part of the purchase, in what was is now considered an incredibly free bonus. Today, the Charles the Great cigar brand is produced as one of Finck Cigar Company’s best-selling cigars, manufactured in Honduras.

Fortunately for posterity, the Charles the Great factory survived the neighboring urban destruction when it was purchased by the Arturo Fuente Cigar Company in 1964.

Arturo Fuente Senior originally arrived from Cuba to Key West in 1906, where he perfected cigar making skills at the Eduardo Gato cigar factory before moving to West Tampa in 1912. His West Tampa factory was destroyed by fire in 1924. During the Depression, Arturo Sr. opened a “back porch factory” at his home in Ybor City where friends and family rolled cigars, enabling them to survive the harsh times of the Depression.

The Cuban embargo had been in effect for nearly three years when the Fuente’s acquired the abandoned building and used it for storage: a large supply of Cuban tobacco, acquired prior to the embargo, was fast disappearing.

After searching for a new location to purchase tobacco and produce cigars, the Arturo Fuente Company finally selected the Dominican Republic as their new home. They acquired the perfect land for tobacco cultivation and trained a new generation of cigar artisans to perfect cigar production to a new standard for the 21st century. Arturo Fuente Junior remained at the Charles the Great factory where he revived a cigar brand known as Tampa Sweethearts, which his father originally created in 1923. They were sold in the front rooms of the factory until renovation began in 2010.


When the Fuente’s acquired the Charles the Great factory, they were unaware of its historical significance but realized it was well constructed and worth saving. In 2010, renovation of the original exterior façade began by replacing the support beams of the front steps and reconstructing the original placard at the top of the front entrance. A nationwide search for bricks matching those in the original construction resulted in locating a building in the Northeast whose bricks were made by the original brick maker. They were sent to Tampa to replace missing bricks in the building and for a wall surrounding it. Interior renovation was still underway in fall, 2012 as the wooden floors where cigar rollers once made cigars were transformed into viable office space, cigar storage and a cigar lounge. Exact exterior historical renovation and a tasteful interior resulted in the creation of a premier Ybor City structure.

Thanks to the Fuentes, the building survived urban renewal demolition. Today, the factory’s restoration is a fitting tribute to the heyday of Tampa’s rich cigar legacy, the contributions of Salvador Rodriguez and Francisco Sierra and the Fuente’s, who have protected Tampa’s cigar legacy by renovating a landmark structure in Tampa while raising the standards for quality hand rolled cigars into the 21st Century.

The Fuente family stands as a tribute to Tampa’s rich cultural cigar legacy in an industry that brought employment to thousands of émigrés to Florida, whose descendants live he “American Dream.” Today, this dream for success, based on honesty, integrity and a desire to produce an excellent cigar has been cultivated in the Dominican Republic as the Fuentes aspire to maintain the tradition of producing excellent cigars to fill the humidors of connoisseur smokers throughout the world.

SMOKE Volume 18, Issue 2


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