Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)
Exploring the genius of Thomas Edison, at his snowbird home in Fort Myers
He was one of Florida’s first snowbirds, traveling south every winter to escape brutal cold weather in New Jersey.
But Thomas Edison was no ordinary tourist and his time in Florida was no ordinary holiday.
“This wasn’t a vacation for Edison,” said Alexandria Edwards, marketing coordinator at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. “He never stopped working.”
Indeed, one of Edison’s first tasks upon buying land in Fort Myers in 1885 was to build a lab, where he worked on numerous projects, including finding a natural source for rubber.
Edison’s close friend, Henry Ford, who bought a home next to Edison’s in 1916, removed the lab in 1926, relocating it to Greenfield Village, his history museum outside Detroit. (“Ford even took the Fort Myers soil,” said Edwards.)
Then Ford built another lab for Edison, which still stands on the property, part of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, a collection of historic buildings and botanical gardens.
The complex, just west of downtown, sustained minor damage from Hurricane Ian in late September, was closed for a month, but is back to welcoming thousands of guests every week. Visitors can easily spend a half-day here, immersing themselves in the beauty of the property and the accomplishments of its occupants.
Edison arrives in Fort Myers
Ohio-born Edison, already a well-known inventor, started to develop respiratory problems in his late 30s, said Edwards. “His doctors told him to go south for the winter.”
His first stop was in St. Augustine, in northern Florida, where the weather that winter was unseasonably cold. So he headed farther south, traveling by railroad and then boat to Punta Rassa, at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee on Florida’s southwest coast.
Fort Myers at the time was a small ranching town, with fewer than 400 residents. Edison bought his 13.5 acres from a local rancher in 1885 for $2,700 — a substantial overpayment, according to Edwards, who added, “The joke was that he got the Yankee discount.”
The town would never be the same.
Edison would spend the next several decades traveling back and forth between Florida and the East Coast. He built two homes on the land, a main house for him and his second wife, Mina Miller Edison, and their growing family, and an adjacent guest house. Both were fabricated from preassembled kits of white spruce and cedar, sent from Maine, and featured high ceilings and expansive windows, which aided airflow decades before the invention of air conditioning.
Originally occupied by Edison colleague Ezra Gilliland, the guest house eventually became an extension of the Edison home, featuring a kitchen, dining room and additional bedrooms for the family’s six children.
Most of the furnishings, including Mina’s 1901 George Steck grand piano, are original to the family.
The houses stayed in the Edison family after his death in 1931. In 1947, Mina Edison sold it for $1 to the city of Fort Myers, which opened it that year to the public.
Henry Ford, meanwhile, first came to Fort Myers to visit his friend Edison in 1914. He bought the house next door — built in 1911 by New York entrepreneur Robert Smith — in 1916, and vacationed here for two weeks every winter until Edison died.
It was added to the Edison estate complex and opened to the public in 1990.
Most tours do not go in the houses, but visitors can easily see the interiors from the covered porches, via open doorways and windows. A large table in the dining room was the centerpiece of numerous social engagements that Edison made a habit of leaving early.
“He wasn’t fond of dinner parties,” said Edwards, likely in large part because he was deaf most of his life.
He was also a workaholic, who spent long hours in the lab every day, well into his 80s.
Edison’s lab — the one Ford built to replace the one taken to Michigan — is located across McGregor Boulevard from the homes, adjacent to a 15,000-square foot museum, which houses artifacts and exhibits about Edison’s inventions and accomplishments.
On display in the museum: exhibits featuring the evolution of lightbulbs and phonographs; numerous cars,
including the 1916 Model T gifted to Edison from Ford, with a crank start and speedometer/odometer on the side of the wheel; and a collection of batteries (“Edison’s most profitable invention,” according to Edwards).
The adjacent Edison Botanic Research Laboratory looks like it might have been used yesterday — as if Edison and Ford, and fellow collaborator Harvey Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber, had just stepped away for lunch. There’s cotton on the counter, a lathe at the ready, test tubes waiting to be filled.
During his final years, Edison was working furiously to find a natural source for rubber, although he was ultimately unsuccessful.
“He wanted something that could grow quickly,” said Edwards. “They tested 17,000 plants.”
Among the organic matter considered: the banyan tree, which ultimately proved to be too slow-growing and impractical.
Slow-growing, but also magnificent: A banyan tree planted not far from the lab in 1927 is now one of the largest in the U.S., according to Edwards, with a canopy that covers almost an acre.
Also on the grounds: Mina’s Moonlight Garden,
built on the site of her husband’s first lab, with blue and white flowers and a small pool to reflect the moonlight.
A swimming pool — the first residential pool in Fort Myers — is currently off-limits due to hurricane damage.
Edison didn’t use the pool much, said Edwards. He wasn’t much into exercise.
“He believed in exercising the mind,” she said. And indeed,
his property in Florida offers abundant proof of that.
If you go Edison and Ford Winter Estates Where:
2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers When: The property is open daily, 9a.m.-5:30p.m.; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Numerous special events are hosted on the grounds annually, including concerts,
gardening events and the annual Holiday Nights festival every December. How much: Tours are either self-guided ($25, adult) or guided ($30), offered numerous times daily. Specialty tours are offered as well, focused on home interiors, automotive history and gardens. For information: edisonfordwinterestates. org/visit/tickets-tours/ More information: edisonford.org; visitfortmyers.com