You know Henry Ford and Thomas Edison for the car and the light bulb. But these Michigan buddies also helped invent the winter escape. Follow their early snowbird tracks into wild (and tamed) tropics in southwest Florida.
Anarrow tunnel of mangroves renders paddles useless. Instead, kayakers use limbs as handholds to glide through a stretch of shallow waters in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. The silent approach earns the trust of wildlife that would scatter at the sound of tromping feet or airboats.
Perched inches from paddlers’ faces, a tricolored heron doesn’t flinch. Around the next bend, a few wading ibis dig for breakfast. A gator lets the visitors float within 20 feet to snap a photo before sinking below the surface. This world captivated two of the Midwest’s most celebrated innovators more than 100 years ago. Today you can explore it yourself, with time in the afternoon to catch the Minnesota Twins in spring training, or the 2018 World Series champs at the Red Sox’ Florida stadium—lobster rolls, the Green Monster and all.
In Fort Myers, 60 miles north of this Everglades water trail (and 15 miles from beaches), the Edison and Ford Winter Estates lines the Caloosahatchee riverfront with blooms and royal palms. Ohio-born and Michiganraised Thomas Edison bought land here in 1885, when Fort Myers was a frontier town of 300 people. Accessible only by boat and cattle trails, it was a doorstep to the Everglades, which have since shrunk 50 percent due to development.
Henry Ford, of Dearborn, Michigan, became Edison’s neighbor in 1916. He did so after joining his friend and mentor (with naturalist John Burroughs) on an Everglades camping trip. The jaunt was the first of many glamping excursions the duo led across the U.S. until the mid-1920s. Dubbing themselves the Vagabonds, the adventurers attracted journalists, film crews and even President Warren Harding for one trip.
The conjoined Fort Myers estates today draw a quarter-million annual visitors. Edison and lab assistants planted some of the massive trees (banyan and Mysore fig) in their search for natural rubber sources. The famed inventor used the samples and instruments on display in the lab. Orchids growing up trees and in gardens represent the same flowers that Thomas and his wife, Mina, found in the Everglades.
Surrounding the site, a metro of 700,000 now booms with travelers following the lead of the two Midwest heroes. They seek baseball spring training, manatees and sunshine. Downtown, marquees for Edison Theatre and Ford’s Garage burger bar glow above open-air dining and live bands. And for active types, it’s still a gateway to the largest U.S. swath of subtropical wilderness (roughly the size of New Jersey). Venture beyond Edison and Ford’s backyard to find it.
WRITER South of Fort Myers, The Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail covers 190 miles.
Historic River District in Fort Myers ABOVE Palms and jungle-like foliage cradle the Edison and Ford Winter Estates historic site in Fort Myers. LEFT Ford (on left) and Edison pose during a Florida retreat.