Geniuses on the Caloosahatchee
Pals Edison and Ford loved the outdoors and Fort Myers
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.
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.