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.

Midwest Living - - Contents -

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.

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