Ge­niuses on the Caloosa­hatchee

Pals Edi­son and Ford loved the out­doors and Fort My­ers

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - ROSS LONGBOTTOM FORT MY­ERS, FLA.— Ross Longbottom is a copy ed­i­tor with The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

In time, per­haps, some will say Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were the power duo of our times. Their fore­sight, in­ven­tive­ness and busi­ness savvy opened the door to a new elec­tronic world that changed how we lived our lives. A world with­out per­sonal com­put­ing de­vices? Un­think­able now.

But they were not a true duo in the sense of be­ing kin­dred spir­its. Their prod­ucts and ideas dom­i­nated the mar­ket­place. They were, or had been, col­leagues, but their quests and worldly in­ter­ests dif­fered, and their friend­ship was frac­tured.

There was a sim­i­lar time, when the world was be­ing pro­foundly af­fected by two men also. Thomas Edi­son and Henry Ford. Edi­son was a high-en­ergy ge­nius who in­vented the com­mon light bulb and founded Gen­eral Elec­tric to bring elec­tric­ity to the world. Ford de­vel­oped the af­ford­able car and its mass as­sem­bly, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing at once both per­sonal trans­porta­tion and the work­ing world. As with Jobs and Gates, their suc­cess was based on in­vent­ing a prod­uct that would ben­e­fit the world and be af­ford­able to many, if not all.

It is not on ev­ery­one’s Florida todo list, but a visit to the Edi­son and Ford Win­ter Es­tates in Fort My­ers is a wor­thy and ed­u­ca­tional out­ing. There are many dis­cov­er­ies to be made. Firstly, who knew Edi­son and Ford were pals? And who knew an­other in­dus­trial gi­ant, Har­vey Fire­stone, hung out with them?

In fact, one of the last great projects Edi­son would un­der­take was the search for a re­place­ment for South Amer­i­can rub­ber, which would be of great value to his friend Fire­stone the tire king.

Here, astride the big Caloosa­hatchee River and its cool­ing breezes, in 1927 the troika es­tab­lished the Edi­son Botanic Re­search Cor­po­ra­tion. More than 17,000 plants were tested to find the best source of la­tex for rub­ber. The lab and its orig­i­nal ma­chines and lab­o­ra­tory re­main in­tact. And the sad re­sult can be learned that while golden rod was the best hope for la­tex pro­duc­tion, it was never de­vel­oped fur­ther af­ter Edi­son’s death in 1931.

But what brought the great in­ven­tor to Fort My­ers? He was on his hon­ey­moon with his sec­ond wife, Mina, in 1886. His first wife had died. Fort My­ers was just a lit­tle stop on a cat­tle drive route, but for some rea­son Edi­son and Mina were on a steamer on the river when Edi­son saw a piece of land with bam­boo grow­ing on it. He was con­sid­er­ing bam­boo for a light bulb fil­a­ment and it en­thralled him. Edi­son and Mina bought 13.5 acres to build a win­ter res­i­dence. They called it Semi­nole Lodge, named af­ter the lo­cal na­tives.

Added to fre­quently over the years, Edi­son and Mina hosted so many guests, in­clud­ing pres­i­den­t­elect Her­bert Hoover, they even­tu­ally built a sep­a­rate guest house. Friend and for­mer Edi­son em­ployee Henry Ford vis­ited in 1914, and in 1916 Ford bought the ad­join­ing prop­erty and built a home. To­day the homes are pre­served in the 1920s style. View­ing takes place from the out­side, look­ing through win­dow open­ings un­der the large, shady porches Edi­son had built. The spa­cious rooms are re­laxed in de­sign, and fur­ni­ture is not too grand, but com­fort­able. See the din­ner bell sys­tem Edi­son in­vented (he had more than 1,000 patents), see one of his early phono­graphs, the pi­ano his daugh­ters played. It’s also in­ter­est­ing to see orig­i­nal light fix­tures de­signed by Edi­son, called “elec­troliers” are still in use.

While peek­ing into the rooms — in­clud­ing ser­vants quar­ters, kitchens, dens and din­ing rooms — is pleas­ing, there is more to see. Many of the trees and plants on the prop­erty are iden­ti­fied. Stop and see the huge brown woolly fig. It stands near the river. It has a cir­cum­fer­ence of 305 inches and a height of 102 feet. And see the mas­sive banyan tree that Edi­son planted. The tree con­tin­ues to drop new shoots to the ground from branches to sup­port it­self. Its colos­sal ex­panse is now more than one acre.

Be­fore you go, and it’s al­most an af­ter­thought for some, tour the mu­seum and see Edi­son’s early phono­graphs, the stock ticker he in­vented, Ford’s early cars.

What one takes away is the sense that these men were unique, in­tel­li­gent and at the fore­front of tech­nol­ogy. But at the end of the day, they were much like us. They needed friends, they won­dered and wor­ried for the beauty of the world botan­i­cally and oth­er­wise. Edi­son wrote of­ten about his love for the sim­ple song of a bird, the beauty of a river breeze. It is good that their times have been pre­served, thanks to Mina Edi­son who gave it all to the city of Fort My­ers be­fore she died.

I won­der what will be­come of Jobs’ and Gates’ homes.

PHOTOS BY ROSS LONGBOTTOM

Edi­son, Ford and Fire­stone built a re­search lab on the prop­erty to find the best Amer­i­can source for la­tex. The lab of­fice is seen as it was in the 1920s.

Thomas and Mina Edi­son’s win­ter home in Fort My­ers. The large prop­erty, build­ings and gar­dens at­tract 250,000 vis­i­tors per year.

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