Lykes Brothers

By: Diana J. Kleiner

Type: General Entry

Published: March 1, 1995

Lykes Brothers, Incorporated, Houston, the Texas component of a family of companies originally involved in cattle and shipping, traces its history to seven brothers who established one of the largest United States fleets engaged in foreign trade under one management. The family's involvement with cattle shipping dates to the Civil War and Howell T. Lykes's service in the "Cow Cavalry" or "Commissary Battalion," developed by Capt. James McKay of Tampa, Florida. Under C. J. Munnerlyn, the cow cavalry rounded up and delivered cattle in Florida to feed beef-starved Confederate soldiers late in the war. McKay, who pioneered the cattle trade between Florida and Cuba before the war, ran the blockade frequently and was once arrested by the Union Navy. After the war, Lykes raised cattle and citrus fruit, using McKay's ships to transport them to Cuba before developing his own shipping line. Later he invested in steamships, and eventually purchased McKay's Florida shipping point. Lykes profited at the close of the Spanish-American War by supplying cattle to replace Cuban animals decimated by the war. Two of his seven sons, Fred and H. T., organized Lykes Brothers cattle brokers in Cuba in 1900, while family cattle holdings in Florida were incorporated as Lykes Company, a companion to the Cuban firm that later merged with the family's other business interests. Fred Lykes set up Matadero de Luyano, a Lykes-owned meatpacking plant, and Lykes Brothers bought its first Cuban ranches, the Cachual and the Estropajos, around 1902.

Lykes company involvement in Texas began in 1903 when James McKay Lykes, who had worked in the cattle business with his brothers in Cuba, made his first cattle-buying trips to Galveston. By 1906 he had joined the Lykes Brothers partnership and opened a Galveston office to buy cattle and charter ships to deliver them to Cuba and return with cargoes of sugar for Gulf Coast refineries. A museum, replicating the original office of the firm that later served as headquarters for the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, remains at Galveston. Starting with the Norwegian SS Eidsiva, which made round trips from Galveston to Havana every eight days, the company shipped cattle from Florida, Texas, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Venezuela. In 1907 Lykes consolidated his interests with H. Mosle and Company to form the United Steamship Company. His brother, Joseph T. Lykes, joined him in 1909 to work on the business. The Cuban Lykes Brothers partnership dissolved in 1910, and its assets were transferred to a new corporation known as Lykes Brothers, Incorporated, the forerunner of the present company. In 1922 the brothers organized the company to engage in a general-cargo business between Gulf ports and the Caribbean, replacing business lost after the Cuban cattle market collapsed. Lykes shipped cotton, flour, rice, lumber, and other commodities from western Gulf ports, returned with Caribbean sugar for Gulf refineries, and soon had offices in major European cities.

During World War I, Lykes Brothers chartered government-owned ships as an agent of the United States Shipping Board on trade routes assigned by the board. The company later purchased war-built United States ships and acquired other steamship companies, including Daniel Ripley and Company in 1923, Tampa Interocean in 1925, and Lone Star Steamship Company in 1927. Lykes incorporated in 1922 as a Louisiana corporation, with James Lykes as president and later chairman of the board. Steamship operations were headquartered in New Orleans, the main corporate headquarters remained in Tampa, and an office opened in New York. The steamship company served as a general agent for the War Shipping Administration in World War II, operating a total of 125 government-owned and other vessels in the war effort.

In 1925 James Lykes moved to Houston, where he was active in civic and cultural affairs. In Texas he leased and operated the 140,000-acre Soledad Ranch near Freer (the lease lasted from 1932 to 1971), and in 1941 he purchased the 275,000-acre O2 Ranch near Alpine to raise cattle. The Lykes family is credited with introducing Brahman cattle onto Florida ranges. Lykes Brothers returned to the citrus business in 1944, and in 1949 it began its purchase of Pasco Packing Company, a processing plant at Dade City. Lykes Brothers was reincorporated in 1949. By 1954 the separate company Lykes Brothers Steamship, with a fleet of fifty-four ships, was considered the largest United States-flag cargo fleet under private ownership. It first offered shares to the public in 1958. The family abandoned the meat-packing business in Cuba in the 1940s, and lost its 15,000-acre Candelaria Ranch there when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. In 1969 Lykes Steamship organized a holding company and acquired the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel company. Lykes Transport, a trucking company, was organized as a subsidiary of Lykes Brothers in the 1980s. Other Lykes businesses have included real estate, logging, banking, oil and gas, and an insurance business opened in 1925. Lykes Steamship became part of the LTV Corporation in the 1970s, but returned to the Lykes family companies after repurchase in 1983.

Susan L. Mueller, A Lykes Family History (1991).
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Diana J. Kleiner, “Lykes Brothers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 1, 1995