Fort Myers’ Edison and Ford Winter Estates
With Spring-breakers storming the beaches, I am reminded that Florida has a long history of being the state where Americans get away from it all!! Long before jet ski’s, long before air conditioners, even ceiling fans, folks came to our beaches to relax for a week or two. Just like today’s snowbirds, some escaped the cold weather for the entire winter season! Two very notable snowbirds are Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. These two inventors and titans of industry were neighbors, having purchased adjacent pieces of property in Fort Myers along the Caloosahatchee River. Currently named The Edison and Ford Winter Estates, these two properties have been restored, and include a historical museum and 17 acre botanical garden. The evidence of their genius and creativity still exist and are available for public viewing.
The Edisons purchased the property to build their vacation home (on the advice of Thomas Edison’s doctor). The estate – the family’s living quarters, guest house, caretaker’s house, were completed in 1887 and named Seminole Lodge. At the time, electricity wasn’t a part of everyday living and, as would be expected, Edison wired the entire home. In fact, Edison equipped the home with all kinds of novelties, including one of the first in-ground pools in the country. There was an intercom system which he used to startle his guests, and lights in the closet that blinked on automatically whenever the doors were opened. Edison also had a communal dining area and kitchen built in the guest quarters because he didn’t like to smell food cooking. On the property is a wooden fence that became to be known as the “friendship gate”. On the other side of the gate is the Ford property, The Mangoes. The Fords purchased this land in 1916, when it became available, so that Henry Ford could spend time with his friend and mentor.
Edison had chosen Fort Myers specifically because of his interest in the vegetation of southwestern Florida. He had been experimenting with bamboo; carbonizing the bamboo fibers and using them as filaments for his incandescent light bulb. When Ford joined him, they teamed up with another good friend, Harvey Firestone, in pursuing lower cost methods of manufacturing rubber. At the time, rubber was a crucial component for most twentieth-century products, and especially crucial for Ford and Firestone. Rubber was used for tires and the insulation for telegraph wires, and costs were rising rapidly. They built a lab and sought a crop that could grow quickly and contain enough latex to support their research. They planted a variety of exotic plants and trees, and as they experimented they sent sample rubber residues up to Edison’s New Jersey factories. Edison’s lab and botanical garden still remain as a part of today’s attraction. The garden contains more than a thousand varieties of plants from around the world, including African Sausage Trees and a 400-foot banyan tree given by Harvey Firestone in 1925. Although it was originally an experimental garden for those industrial products, Mrs. Mina Edison later gave the garden a more aesthetic look with plantings of roses, orchids and bromeliads.
In 1947, Mrs. Edison deeded the estate to the City of Fort Myers, and in 1950 it was opened for public tours. In the late 1980’s, the Ford winter estate was also purchased and subsequently opened for public tours. In 2003, the governance of the entire site was transferred from the City to a non-profit corporation, Thomas Edison & Henry Ford Winter Estates, Inc. (dba Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Inc) whose mission is to protect and preserve the site. After a recent $10 million restoration project, the estates are open to the public and many of the inventions and artifacts are on exhibit. Ford and Edison’s inventions still have such an impact on everything we use today. Imagine visiting Henry Ford’s garage! It’s a treat to have access to the personal lives and minds of, arguably, the greatest innovators of the twentieth century!!
For more information, please contact:
Edison Ford Winter Estate 2350 McGregor Blvd. Fort Myers, Florida 33901