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Edison & Ford Winter Estates: Part 1

On one of my recent trips to Florida, I decided to follow a recommendation of a fellow passenger on the flight out. I was not aware that Thomas Edison had a home and lab in Florida, specifically in Fort Myers. It's on the Gulf Coast of Florida (Fort Lauderdale is on the Atlantic Coast) and only a two-hour drive — so I had to go. I invited my dad, who spent most of his adult working life involved with electronics, so he readily accepted.

When we arrived we were greeted by the great man himself — Thomas Alva Edison. In case you don't know, he is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history with some 1,093 U.S. patents in his name.

In 1885, he purchased this property, sketched his plan for the estate, hired an architect to transform his vision into reality and one year later returned with his new bride to their new winter home.

Mina also graces the grounds and what lovely grounds they are. She and Thomas were both lovers of nature and transformed this spot on the Caloosahatchee River into a tropical paradise — as it remains today.

He was also interested in trying to find a substitute for rubber — especially during World War I — and experimented with various plants. It was later in his life that his team finally deduced that the weed Goldenrod was the best alternative producer of latex — although this solution still proved not to be economically feasible.

When you first enter the grounds, you encounter the caretaker's house. Part of the structure was here when Edison bought the property — having been used as a stopover for cattle drovers moving herds down the old Wire Road (which is now McGregor Blvd, which bisects the Edison estate). There are photos and other exhibits inside — but no furnishings. A motorcar still sits in the garage.

The house might appear somewhat modest by today's standards but I suspect that the job of caretaker would have been a much sought-after job in Edison's day. Imagine how relaxing it would be to sit on the screened-in porch during a lazy Florida evening when there weren't so many people in the area (or tourists wondering about).

When Edison first came to Fort Myers he actually arrived by boat — the transportation infrastructure was certainly not what it is today. Over time, wagon trails became dirt roads then eventually paved roads.

There were several of Edison's automobiles on display — as I recall, they were all Fords. It seems that Edison and Henry Ford became good friends — and eventually Ford purchased the property next to Edison's so he could winter in the warmer climes as well. The Ford estate is part of this complex and I will share photos in an upcoming issue.

Ford even built a custom vehicle for Edison with a wider-than-normal wheel base to facilitate navigating the wagon trails that were still common in those early days of Florida.

Their families enjoyed exploring southwest Florida together as well as fishing, boating and square dancing during the winter trips to Fort Myers. Somehow I have a hard time picturing Edison and Ford square dancing — but that is what we were told.

And here is Edison's house — known as Seminole Lodge. The house was expanded a bit over the years but stands as it was when the Edison family sold it to the City of Fort Myers for $1 (after Edison's death). The furnishing are original — so visitors are permitted to see the rooms from outside the doorways — but not allowed to enter.

I love the porches — wide and covered. They must have made the warm winter days quite pleasant — providing shade plus allowing the breezes to cool anyone relaxing there.

And the views from the porches are spectacular — especially inviting for someone coming from the north to escape the harsh winters. This one features the Caloosahatchee River in the distance as well as the nearby tropical landscape that the Edisons created.

Then when you turn your head, you find a different but equally spectacular view of the gardens.

What better way to pass the time then sitting on a bench swing, slowly rocking back and forth. Sorry about the modern fans that the staff has left in place — impossible to photograph the swing without getting those things in the picture.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com