DRAFTING PROGRESS IN PARADISE
By Barry Stein
Two brilliant minds partnering on a vacation-research retreat could mean nothing less than amazing architecture and 1,700 plant varieties, including award winning trees, a fertile laboratory and garden. One of those trees was planted one weekend in 1925, when Ford invited his tired friend Harvey Firestone to the estate. The three of them planted the tree, and it is now one of the largest Banyan trees in the continental United States! Is this not a metaphor for growth and success by three men who changed our world?
The area of Southwest Florida has long attracted the attentions of the highest strata of American society. Two of the most influential men in our nation’s history, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, can be included at the top of that list.
Though their Ft. Myers’ properties were primarily seasonal residences and research facilities, the Fords and the Edisons frequently hosted rich and famous guests. The wide southern style wrap around porches of the estates were invented for rocking and talking among such friends. The twin main buildings appear as two traditional Florida Style framed houses, connected by a breezeway. At one point in history they were separate identical homes, but now the larger connected house is considered a wing displaying the main living quarters. The smaller attached building houses the dining room, kitchen, guest and servers accommodations.
Part of living the privileged life of two of the world’s greatest inventors was to revel in nature and create the ultimate garden to enjoy and share with others. Edison’s wife Mina joined in the inventiveness, and created a Moonlight Garden, with the help of M. Stipple, one of the first women Landscape Architects. Mina was an inventor as well, as she designed the garden with light colored plants that would bloom in the moonlight and be breathtakingly viewed in the Reflecting Pool, complemented by floating plants. The prolific garden would have staggered monthly bloomings, and includes a long list of tropical fruit and exotic trees from around the world. Fourteen royal palm trees form a natural aisle, where couples take their final stroll as singles into matrimony. However, the primary reason Edison bought this property was because of the variety of bamboo that grew wild throughout the grounds.
In the late 1800’s, as Edison continued his obsession to make a better light bulb, he was unhappy with the light that the filament produced, and pronounced his famous quote, “discontent is the first necessity for progress.” He believed that “genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” and was prepared to sweat in search of a certain kind of bamboo that would burn brighter and longer in his new bulb. So Edison grabbed his friend and business partner, Ezra Gilliland and headed to St. Augustine, Florida, in the winter of 1885. Disappointed with the unseasonable temperatures, the inventive partners hopped on a carriage to Jacksonville, where they boarded a train to Cedar Key, on the west coast of Florida. The two friends floated down the Gulf Coast to Punta Rassa, near Sanibel Island, and stayed overnight at the Schultz Hotel, known to attract the rough and tough.
Edison, Ford, and Burroughs with family and friends on a camping trip in the Florida Everglades.
Edison, Ford, and Firestone were keenly aware of the role of politics and international affairs in their business success. It seems likely that their earliest discussions on the quandary of rubber availability may have occurred near the campfire, leading them to the incorporation of the Edison Botanic Research Corporation (1927), headquartered in Fort Myers, Florida, with a goal of raising and producing an organic source of rubber in the United States, thus relieving the nation’s dependence on foreign rubber.
Their next stop would be a virtually unknown frontier town called Ft. Myers, population 349. Away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and on the shores of the Caloosahatchee River, Edison purchased 13 acres from a cattle baron named Samuel Summerlin for a whopping $2,750. They called the retreat “Seminole Lodge” and a new chapter began in the history of one of our nation’s most famous inventors, as well as changing Ft. Myers forever.
As Edison built his Detroit Illuminating Company, he met Henry Ford, who was on the road with a little invention of his own. He turned to Edison for help with the battery and starter system for his automobiles. The two became fast friends and frequently vacationed together at the Seminole Lodge. In 1916, Henry Ford got a call from Edison’s next-door neighbor, a man by the name of Robert Smith. Smith was looking to sell his property, called “The Mangoes,” and knew that Ford and Edison were friends who frequently vacationed together. In August of 1916, Ford sent a check to Smith for $20,000 to purchase the property next to Edison’s.
Henry Ford’s new home featured extraordinary cypress and pine woodwork, storybook built-in window seats and a magnificent fireplace mantel. Over time, Ford added a north and south wing, which increased the size of the beautiful Craftsman bungalow-style home to a sprawling 3,000 square feet. The expanded wings feature an additional bedroom and bathroom along with two exterior rooms, most likely used by the staff that traveled with the Fords during their visits to Fort Myers. Known for quoting great wisdom, Ford’s vision to partner with Edison on this estate was finally coming together. “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
Ford and Edison continued their success together for about fifteen years until 1931, when Edison passed away. Soon after, Ford stopped coming to their retreat, and in 1945 the Fords sold The Mangoes to Thomas and Gladys Biggar. It became their family home for the next 40 years, until the Biggars sold it to the City of Fort Myers in 1988. The home was restored to its 1920s appearance and was re-opened to the public in 1990.
Two years after Ford sold their property, Edison’s widow deeded the Seminole Lodge to the City of Fort Myers as well, in memory of Thomas Edison. It too was restored and re-opened to the public in 1950. In 2006 the property got an infusion of capital, a restoration face-lift and is available for the world to discover.
So much about Fort Myers had changed with the arrival of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford that this writer is surprised the town isn’t called Ford Myers. As you can imagine, Edison had something to do with bringing telephone service to the little frontier town as early as 1900. Ford and Edison’s donations helped finance the first volunteer Fire Department and naturally a municipal public water system had to be built to accommodate Edison, Ford, Eastman, Firestone and the flood of guests that would arrive. Entertainment and business catered to them, which made the downtown area boom and put Fort Myers Country Club on par with some of the best clubs in the world. Did you ever wonder why the Tamiami Trail links to Miami at Fort Myers? Mystery solved! Edison’s wife Mina took the trail T’Miami often.
Today, any of us could drive across the trail or to Disneyland or Busch Gardens and be dazzled by the entertainment and thrill of brightly lit amusements. But to sit on the same huge porch where those brilliant minds rocked, is a whole other thrill. Especially when one realizes they couldn’t drive to those destinations, much less see those bright lights without Edison or Ford. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Fort Myers offers a variety of amazing tourist destinations, but it did take a couple of geniuses to invent the Edison and Ford Winter Estate.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates,
2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, FL 33901
Phone: 239.334.7419 | edisonfordwinterestates.org