A. Santaella Cigar Company exterior

A. Santaella Cigar Company exterior

The Best of the Best
The Story of the A. Santaella Cigar Company

by Marilyn Esperante Figueredo / Cigar City Magazine

Winston Churchill liked the mild Optimo cigar manufactured by A. Santaella Cigars and so did Babe Ruth. Tampa was one of “The Babe’s” favorite places to visit—he had made his mark here on April 4, 1919, in a pre-season game the Boston Red Sox played against the New York Giants. He knocked a 587-foot home run out of the Tampa Fair Grounds, over a fence, and into a furrow in a farmer’s field! Each year when he arrived in Tampa for spring training, “The Great Bambino” would take the opportunity to stock up on his favorite cigars. He would visit the A. Santaella Cigar Factory in West Tampa to collect a few boxes of his beloved smoke, known as, “The Best of the Best”, and he always made time to pose for pictures.

Winston Churchill liked the mild Optimo cigar manufactured by A. Santaella Cigars and so did Babe Ruth. Tampa was one of “The Babe’s” favorite places to visit—he had made his mark here on April 4, 1919, in a pre-season game the Boston Red Sox played against the New York Giants. He knocked a 587-foot home run out of the Tampa Fair Grounds, over a fence, and into a furrow in a farmer’s field! Each year when he arrived in Tampa for spring training, “The Great Bambino” would take the opportunity to stock up on his favorite cigars. He would visit the A. Santaella Cigar Factory in West Tampa to collect a few boxes of his beloved smoke, known as, “The Best of the Best”, and he always made time to pose for pictures.

The four-story, red brick building still stands at 1906 N. Armenia. It was built in 1904 after a fire destroyed the previous structure. Since this was the second time a fire had occurred, its owners decided to use a different plan when rebuilding. When Antonio Santaella from Seville, Spain and Sol Hamburger from Bavaria built a third time, they purchased the entire block and built the factory in the middle. The last fire had jumped from one building to another, and Mr. Santaella did not want this to happen again. He later was able to convince the city to build a fire station behind his factory—and another safeguard was in place. Their new factory was one of the largest and most efficiently equipped in the city.

Santaella and Hamburger had a long history in the business. They began manufacturing cigars in 1886 and had factories in Key West before coming to Tampa. Between 1918 and 1919, Santaella produced over forty-five million cigars and in 1946, they opened a factory in Clearwater, Florida. That operation was eventually closed, and in 1955 the factory on Armenia was sold to Universal Cigar Corporation.

The current owners of 1906 N. Armenia demonstrate a true appreciation for their building’s history. The Ellis and Van Pelt families purchased it in 1997 from Tropical Garment to operate Ellis-Van Pelt Office Furniture, Inc. But then they did something very unique – they converted the top floors of the factory into studios and rented them to local artists. Those old wood floors now harbor a beehive of artistic activity. Art shows are held frequently, and visitors can walk down the long halls of the factory and stop to view or purchase the art.

When you walk into the business office of Ellis-Van Pelt, you notice shelves filled with cigar making artifacts—all found by the family after they purchased the factory. The first objects to catch your eye are the vibrant cigar boxes with the picture of a proud Antonio Santaella on the label, wearing his trademark white hat. Mr. Gray Ellis pointed out another picture of Antonio seated on the back of a big white horse, his large frame looming over the animal! Laughing, we agreed Señor Santaella was obviously a very colorful character.

I then spotted three wooden chairs whose seats and backs were covered by a worn skin. Mr. Ellis and his son Bubba explained the goatskin was used as a cushion for the workers who sat long hours rolling cigars. I pictured busy hands working to complete as many cigars as possible in one day, only stopping for a quick bite to eat or a short restroom break. We can only imagine life in a cigar factory in the 1900′s – even with the assistance of the old postcards, cigar-making tools, documents and pictures the Ellis family has on display.

I was intrigued with the stories the family heard about payoffs that existed in the factories.

Mr. Ellis said he was told that cigar workers were paid at the end of the week and if they wanted to remain in good standing, they would each place a silver dollar under the mat at their work table before they left. Once everyone had gone, the manager would walk around the empty factory collecting his payoffs. The money kept the manager happy, the cigar worker employed, and in most cases, his family as well.

Mr. Ellis’ wife Joann remained busy at her desk while we talked. Keeping one ear on our discussion, she jumped in every so often to qualify a story. As I studied the picture of “The Babe” on the wall, Mr. Ellis described one way their factory influenced their lives. He told me about their cats.

He said, “Well, one cat we had awhile back we named ‘Optimo’ and then the other cat we named ‘Winifred’ after Mr. Santaella’s wife.”

Mrs. Ellis was smiling as she said, “Yep, and that’s my middle name too!”

As I turned to leave, I asked Mr. Ellis one last question. Had he heard any other interesting stories he wanted to share?

He thought for a minute then said, “Well, one of our artists once said the factory is haunted!” His best recollection was the artist was working late one night when a decorative sword hanging on the wall began to turn slowly … and then stopped as suddenly as it had started! I made a note to contact that artist soon. Perhaps I’d have another interesting article to write. I then thanked the Ellis family for the generosity of their time and left.

As I walked toward the cigar factory’s exit, I looked back and thought of the story I had just heard. Could the ghost be that of a cigar worker returning each night to finish his job? Maybe wanting to use his chaveta to make one last cigar… or could it be he forgot to leave his silver dollar under the mat?