Sunday was rainy. We had the dubious pleasure of packing up and getting ready to take off from Road Runner in a steady drizzle. By the time the awnings were stowed, water and sewer disconnected and the Airsteam hitched we were a bit cold and wet.
The day’s goal was Naples. The most direct route would have been south on I-95 and then Highway 41 across the state. But, rather than drive super highways, we elected to take Route 70 west to Route 27 and then to 29.
The dark skies and rain followed us on our drive. It was actually a welcome change from the bright Florida sun. Despite the grey skies and rain, this was an excellent and fascinating route to take. We headed through the real Florida. Gone from sight were the strip malls and endless plastic civilization of the built up urban areas of the east coast.
We headed west from Fort Pierce to Okeechobee and then took a southward turn through Palmdale and Immokalee. At one time Florida was second only to Texas in terms of cattle ranching. Cattle ranches alternated with citrus groves and periodically a small town would punctuate the rhythm. It was open country with few inhabitants. The small settlements were pretty down at heel. Clusters of shacks and, more often, mobile homes housed the workers for the small retail businesses in the towns and the workers for the surrounding ranches. Abandoned homes were liberally interspersed among the inhabited homes. It was a stark contrast to the Florida most people visit. This was a tougher life and land.
The ranches were identified by gates and signs. These were big places and stretched for miles. In particular one family holding caught my attention. We had seen a sign for this ranch and then miles and miles later, we were still seeing their signs. How big could this spread be?
The Lykes Bros. Ranch. Floridians may well know this name, but this Northeasterner had never heard it. However, this is a dynasty worthy of any television saga; great wealth, greed, lust, revolution and ultimate loss. At one point, the Lykes family were billionaires, the largest landowners in Florida, and the wealthiest in Tampa Bay.
It all began in the 1870’s when the patriarch, Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes left his medical career behind and settled on a 500-acre cattle ranch in central Florida. Ultimately, he had seven sons and one daughter and each of the sons came in to the family business. In 1895 Dr. Lykes moved to Tampa and began shipping cattle to Cuba. In 1910 the family incorporated as Lykes Brothers and their holdings expanded to include enormous ranches in Florida (330,000+ acres), Texas (200,000+ acres), thousands and thousands of acres of citrus groves, banking concerns and shipping. They also owned a 15,000 acre estate in Cuba which was nationalized during the Cuban Revolution.
Over time, the family burgeoned, but they remained land rich and cash poor. Over time, assets were sold to feed the expanding family which eventually numbered 250 shareholders and they ended up in court fighting over the valuation of their assets. Don’t cry too much for them though, they still hold their big ranches and major prominence in Tampa society. Forbes ranked them in the top 200 richest families in the US in 2015. They seem to be reinventing themselves as “green” entrepreneurs, but I just bet buried in their past are a million juicy stories behind the glitz and glamour.