As I ambled past a tidal wave of purple bougainvillea, I quickly realized that this historic site in balmy Fort Myers, Florida, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, had indeed been the perfect place for Thomas Edison to spend his winters.
Edison, 38 at the time of his first visit to Fort Myers in 1885 and suffering from a lingering illness, was under doctor’s orders to spend the winter somewhere warmer than chilly New Jersey, where the famed inventor lived and worked. He was so enchanted with Fort Myers, then a cattle town with a population of 349, that he immediately purchased a tiny house and 14 acres of land on the lush banks of the Caloosahatchee River. For Edison, who could be frugal despite his wealth, the $2,750 price was right.
There were other advantages to Edison’s choice. There was plenty of room for a larger house and the outbuildings Edison needed, including a stand-alone study and a laboratory. He didn’t plan to stop tinkering just because he’d be on vacation. Moreover, the idyllic setting at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, would allow Edison to fish, a pastime he came to enjoy as much (or more) for the solitude it provided for the sport. After building his home, which his new wife, Mina, named Seminole Lodge, Edison’s good friend and protégé Henry Ford became a frequent house guest. Years later, Ford built his own house, The Mangoes, next door.
But, much as I enjoyed retracing the steps of earlier visits, my wife and I were there for another reason to see a new exhibit about Edison and two of his contemporaries, George Westinghouse, whose name is affixed to many household appliances and Nikola Tesla, whose name now adorns a popular electric car. While the new movie The Current War, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch, focuses on the rivalries among the three as they pitched their proposals for electrifying the country, the exhibit at the estate, “DC vs. AC: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify America” is more dispassionate, downplaying the rivalries in the name of science. (The movie is set for nationwide release on Oct. 25.)
Nonetheless, the three, each seeking dominance for their own kind of current, tried to impugn the others’ electrical methods with attacks that became increasingly personal. Edison had already stunned the world with his lighting of Manhattan with incandescent light bulbs operated on his invention, direct current, but Westinghouse’s newer alternating current could operate over wider areas and was proving more reliable. Westinghouse enticed Tesla, once an Edison employee, to join his team, and eventually won the day. (Tesla went on to become a pioneer in wireless transmission and remote electrical control.) The instructive poster boards and artifacts on display in the new exhibit, housed in the tiny caretakers’ quarters, recount the scientific achievements along the journey to electrification but, not surprisingly, Edison steals the show.
The Edison Ford Museum, housed in a rustic 15,000-square-foot shed adjoining Edison’s laboratory, includes several early Ford automobiles, among them the 1916 Model T Ford that Ford gave to Edison for his trips into town. Another car, a 1907 Cadillac, is complete with a plush salmon pink interior. (Other antique vehicles are on display at The Mangoes.)
Several galleries at the museum are devoted to the phonograph, the sensational invention that made Edison famous and earned him a fortune. Outside the museum, a banyan tree planted by Edison as a four-foot seedling is now the largest of the species in the continental United States, with a canopy measuring almost an acre. A statue of Edison stands in perpetual shade beneath it. Nearby, a figure of Mina sits in the estate’s inviting outdoor plant shop amid a profusion of colorful flowers, while there’s another statue, of Ford, in the garden outside his house.
The sun splashed lawns at the estate are a pastoral delight with a butterfly garden, a native plants display, a “midnight garden” with white plants intended to reflect the moonlight and, altogether, more than 400 species of exotic plants and trees, many of them flowering. Some were planted in support of a quest by Edison, Ford and another friend, Harvey Firestone of rubber tire fame, to find a domestic source of rubber to replace the Asian supply chain. There had been shortages in World War I, and the three believed foreign dependence threatened national security. Edison eventually found the perfect source: the goldenrod plant. However, the three dissolved their venture, the Edison Botanic Research Corporation, in 1936 amid the economic havoc of the Great Depression.
Starting in 1914, the three inventors, joined by their friend John Burroughs, the famed naturalist, often took car trips together through the wilds of the Adirondacks and the American West, dubbing themselves The Four Vagabonds. On one trip, without Burroughs, they took President Warren G. Harding along as their guest and, on another, the four friends visited former President Calvin Coolidge. Sometimes their wives and families came along. Their caravan included their own cars, cars carrying their camping and fishing equipment and more cars for their servants.
Today, Fort Myers, once seen mainly as a stop along the way to Sanibel Island, which lies several miles offshore with pristine shelling beaches and a famed national wildlife refuge, is coming into its own as a major visitor destination. Edison had predicted as much when he famously declared “There is only one Fort Myers in the United States, and there are 90 million people [the country’s population at the time] who are going to find it out.”
Today, the city is not just the beneficiary of the estate’s ramped-up visitor statistics (now nudging 250,000 ticketed admissions a year), but such draws as the restored Burroughs Home and Gardens, a 1901 Georgian Revival mansion painted a fetching yellow that sits on verdant tropical grounds and is open to the public.
The River District in downtown Fort Myers, with vintage charm and streets lined with tropical greenery, is crowded with eateries, boutiques and a major Southwest Florida arts center. Street festivals are popular. On our recent visit, First Street, the principal thoroughfare, was blocked off for an art fair, forcing us to pick our way past one vendor after another to get to a restaurant, Ford’s Garage, whose name had intrigued us.
Earlier in the day, we had a delightful lunch on the patio at the McGregor Café on McGregor Boulevard, the street bisecting the estate that’s lined with 1,800 graceful Royal Palms, a gift to the city from the Edisons. Another inviting spot, the Wisteria Tea Room & Café, serves lunch and afternoon tea. Of the tantalizing desserts, choose the decadent Ultimate Chocolate Pound Cake, which you won’t soon forget. Elsewhere in town, the microbrewery scene is exploding. Check out the hip Social House, Millennial Brewing Company and Coastal Dayz.
Edison’s time in Florida must have been on his mind when, in 1910, he quipped that if no one else found a way of “storing up sunshine,” he’d do it.
In Fort Myers, there was plenty of raw material.
For more information, visit www.frederick newspost.com.