9/8/2022 3:21:00 PM The Edison & Ford Winter Estates
There's more than just electricity and cars at the american icons' SW Florida home...
In a little over a one-hour drive, you can travel back in time and visit the winter homes of two of the most famous men of the early 20th century. Thomas Edison, inventor and botanical researcher, and his friend Henry Ford, who made the automobile accessible through mass production, both sought out Ft. Myers as a winter destination to escape the cold harsh winters of the north, not unlike today. The estates are well worth a trip to immerse yourself in the history of the early 20th century and enjoy the landscaped beauty of the grounds.
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates are side-by-side along the bank of the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers. Edison had originally sought out Jacksonville as a winter escape, but March that year in the early 1880s was unseasonably cold so he took a boat from Cedar Key and headed south towards a port called Punta Rassa. He traveled a short distance up the Caloosahatchee and found the location that would become his winter estate. In 1885 he purchased the 13-acre property for $2,750. While seemingly cheap by today’s standards, Edison grossly overpaid! In 1886, Edison had his house and a guest house built on the riverbank along with his electrical laboratory. A widower, he remarried and brought his bride, Mina Miller, there for their honeymoon. They started wintering on a regular basis in 1901. Seminole Lodge, as Mina named the house, was outfitted with 13 “electrolier” lighting fixtures using direct current electricity. Compared to today, they were relatively dim lighting. Being an inventor, Edison equipped his bathroom with a unique feature: a sit-in electric sauna! Once inside, you switched on the lights and enjoyed a “light bath.” Both the Edison house and the guesthouse have been restored and decorated using Edison’s own furniture. You can view the rooms through Plexiglas half doors and windows. Edison’s laboratory was a replica of the one at his home in Menlo Park, New Jersey. You think of him as an inventor, and rightly so. He invented a wide variety of items from an electric pen, improved incandescent lamp, kinetoscope & kinetograph (early motion picture devices), a home phonograph, a manufacturing process to make cement; need I go on? He acquired over 2,000 patents for some well-known products and some best-forgotten inventions. However, Edison also established a botanical laboratory and research center, the Edison Botanic Research Corporation. Its prime mission was to find another source for producing rubber in the U.S., rather than rely on exports from Southeast Asia. During WWI, the price of rubber had risen dramatically due to inventory shortages, and Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone united to search for an alternative product in case of another shortage. Plant specimens were brought from around the world to see if they would produce a rubber substitute. In total, over 17,000 plant samples were gathered, and the best plant source would prove to be goldenrod! Edison grew many of the plant samples on the grounds around the laboratory, which was active until 1936. The grounds of the Edison and Ford Estates are beautifully manicured with gardens of semi- and tropical trees and plants. One of the most famous landmarks on the Edison Estate is the banyan tree, a native of Southeast Asia. Planted in 1920, it is one of the largest banyan trees in the U.S., with a canopy of almost an acre. The estate sells a variety of Florida-friendly plants and orchids, and gardeners will enjoy wandering through the plant sale area to marvel at the offerings. When fruit is harvested from the property’s trees, it is offered for sale to the public. Henry Ford first met Edison when Ford was an employee of the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company in 1896. But as you know, Ford is best known for his automobiles and rose to fame when he began mass production of his Model T vehicle. He and Edison reconnected when they worked together to develop an improved storage battery for the Model T; yes, there were electric cars in the beginning, but the batteries used were not reliable. In 1914, Ford and his family came to Ft. Myers as Edison’s guests for a camping trip into the Everglades. Despite an unsuccessful camping expedition, Ford bought the adjacent property to Edison in 1916. Ford was one of the founders of the Botanical Research Corporation and in 1928, he had the laboratory dismantled and moved to Ford’s living museum in Greenfield, Michigan. However, the replica at the estate is furnished as if they were still working there. Nearly everyone has a fish story in Florida and Edison found his embarrassing. In 1901, he went tarpon fishing and his son, Charles, stayed behind to gather more bait to take to his father. A tarpon became caught in Charles’ mullet net, and he managed to hang onto the fish until Thomas returned and proudly bragging about the 30 pound tarpon he had captured. To his surprise, Charles’ fish weighed 110 pounds! Both fish were mounted, but not on the same side of the house as Edison stated he did not want his prize compared to his son’s! Everyone will find some part of the visit to their liking. Pose under the massive banyan tree (perfect photo op,) and wander around the lushly landscaped grounds and gardens. Step into Edison’s life by viewing his house, laboratory, study, Mina’s moonlight garden, swimming pool complex, and guesthouse. The museum houses some of his many patents with radios, phonographs, kinetoscopes, and early motion picture devices. One interesting display is the short clip of his patented first motion picture, aptly named “Edison Kinetographic Record of a Sneeze” (yes, that is what it really is). You will also see some of Ford’s automobiles on display. One interesting note regarding Ford’s first trucks, they were nicknamed pickup trucks because they were often delivered as kits via the railroad, and you had to pick the kits up at the depot. Wood was not included for the bed’s sides, so you would see the trucks with different wooden sides. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates first opened to the public in 1947 and are located at 2350 MacGregor Blvd, in Ft. Myers. The estates and museum are open daily 9am to 5:30pm. Be sure to take note of the royal palm trees lining MacGregor Boulevard that were Edison’s idea and were extended further by the city. You have two options for exploring the property. You can purchase an entrance ticket for $25 and walk around with narration via a phone app offered in several languages. For $5 more per person, take a tour with a knowledgeable guide who will entertain and educate you with stories and details about the estates. The tour with a guide is much more informative and affords the opportunity to ask questions. The visit is definitely worth the drive from Englewood. For an extra treat, plan your visit during the holidays when the estates are abloom with Christmas lights. Learn more at www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.