Edison Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers FL
Thomas Edison is a household name; however, it wasn’t until I moved to Fort Myers that I considered his life and work. After a visit to the Edison Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, I started researching his inventions and life. I’ve been back to the estates several times and learn something new each time.
Edison is genuinely a Fort Myers son; there are reminders everywhere. You can’t move around the area without being aware of his influence on the city. McGregor Boulevard on which the estates are located is lined with palm trees planted by the Edisons (hence the City of Palms name for Fort Myers). There’s a beautiful statue of Edison, Ford, and Firestone in the city’s Centennial Park; Edison Bank, Edison Mall, Edison Restaurant to name a few.
Thomas Edison discovered the 21-acre property in Fort Myers while cruising the Caloosahatchee River in 1885. He was 39 and already widely known for his inventions of the incandescent lamp and the phonograph. When Edison first landed at Fort Myers it was a booming cattle driving town of 349 people! He bought the property within hours of arriving and started planning to build. Edison created the plan and had the white pine precut and shipped from Maine. The builders were able to erect the house within days once the materials arrived.
Edison married his second wife Mina Miller in 1886, (his first wife Mary Stillwell died in 1884), he and Mina built their house, Seminole Lodge, along the Caloosahatchee River. During their tenure in Fort Myers, the Edisons were a force in the growth and development of the city. After Edison’s death in 1931, Mina deeded the property to the city of Fort Myers.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were two of the most influential men of the 20th century. Although they are of two different eras, they became good friends later in life. Their paths first crossed in Brooklyn in 1896 when 33-year-old Henry Ford was struggling with his gas-powered engine, and 50-year-old Edison convinced him to quit his job and put all his energy into his design work. Years later they met again and became lifelong friends.
In 1916 Henry Ford and his wife Clara purchased the Craftsman style property next door to Seminole Lodge for $20,000 and named it The Mangoes.
When visiting the EdisonFord Winter Estate as you leave the parking area your first site is of the famous banyan tree: what appears to be a forest of separate trunks are the roots of the same plant. The massive tree was planted as a sapling in 1923, amazing.
One of Edison’s many interests was to find a substitute for imported rubber. To this end, he and Henry Ford built a laboratory across the street from the estates so they could test the many species of plants imported to the property for this purpose.
Edison’s laboratory office.
The laboratory, machine shop and darkroom are so well preserved it’s as if someone could walk in and pick up where they left off so many years ago.
Machine shop and darkroom
Edison and an assistant tap the Ficus tree for its latex milky sap.
Across the street from the parking, ticket/gift shop and museum are the two estates, close to one another, and right on the river. They are sprawling but not opulent, built more for comfort than for glamour. Large, wide, wrap- around porches with original wicker furniture add a homey feeling. There is an adjacent swimming pool/ bathhouse, and a long pier where the Edison family kept their electric boat, the Reliance, one of the first electronic boats to be built.
Surrounding the houses are trees, bushes, and plants, both domestic and imported. Edison, Ford, and Harvey Firestone were testing plants to find a fast-growing plant with enough latex to create a substitute for imported rubber. At that time rubber came exclusively from Southeast Asia. Worried that if there were ever a cut in the supply it would curtail many industries now reliant on rubber, the three inventors were determined to find a substitute. To this end, they tested and cataloged thousands of plant samples. In the end, the lowly Golden Rod proved to be the winner.
From 1916 to 1924 Edison and Ford along with Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs took camping trips together and called themselves the “Vagabonds.” Over the years the trips became more and more elaborate and included Presidents (Harding in 1921 and Coolidge in 1923). The entourage eventually included servants, photographers, and other friends. The wives came on the 1920 trip to the Catskills in New York. In the picture below notice the large round table with a lazy susan, no passing of food was necessary. The men in their obligatory shirts and ties, ladies with dresses and hats, and likely talked for hours. How I would have loved to be there listening to what had to be lively and interesting conversations.
Interesting facts about Thomas Edison
- Edison was taken out of school at an early age because although he was inquisitive, he was not a good student and disruptive in class. His teacher called him”addled” which incensed his mother. He never returned to formal schooling after that, his mother Nancy, home-schooled him and he later said he owed everything to her. “All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” In this early picture Edison looks like he was mischievous, but hardly “addled.”
2. Edison’s mother bought him a basic science book with experiments which could be conducted at home. He was hooked. Edison built his first lab in the family basement at 10. His father offered him a penny if he would come out of the lab and read more. He did so, then used the penny to buy more chemicals.
3. At a young age, Edison started losing his hearing either from a bout of scarlet fever or perhaps a family trait. His father and brother were also hard of hearing. He didn’t mind his compromised hearing; he said it helped him focus.
4. At age 12 Edison worked for the railroad and set up a lab and printing press in the baggage car. There he did experiments and published a newspaper. At one point his experiments caused a small chemical fire for which he was thrown off the train.
However, while employed with the railroad he learned Morse code from the station master. He later worked as a telegraph operator for Western Union but was fired after he spilled sulfuric acid while experimenting with a battery.
5. In 1869 when Edison was 22, he received his first patent for a telegraphic vote-recording machine for the legislature. It was a flop because members of the legislation agreed that the slow pace of the voting count allowed time to filibuster and convinced others to change their vote. It was never used. After that failure, he vowed to work on commercially viable experiments only.
6. Thomas Edison was an inventor who accumulated 2,332 patents worldwide. Of the 2,332 – 1,093 were for his US patents.
7. In 1872 Edison proposed marriage to his 16-year-old employee Mary Stillwell. In the 13 years they were married they had three children. Mary died in 1884 at age 29 of “congestion of the brain,” some accounts say she died of typhoid.
In 1886 Edison met 20-year-old Mina Miller and was smitten. He proposed to her by Morse code which he had taught her so they could have secret conversations.
Although only 20 when she married 39-year-old Edison, Mina was up to the task. She was well educated for a young woman of the time, her father was also an inventor, and she came from a large family (the seventh of 11 children). Edison spent most of his time working, and she cared for the house and children, she called herself a “home executive.” By all accounts, Edison admired her greatly but was a workaholic who consistently forgot birthdays and anniversaries! I suspect Mina had many interests of her own and kept herself busy at home and in the community.
8. Edison had five dots tattooed on his forearm, but it was never clear why. It may have something to do with the electric pen he invented (which was later refined into a modern tattoo pen), but there is no evidence that he used his invention to create the tattoo.
9. An employee died while working on one of Edison’s experiments. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Edison directed a glass blower employee named Clarence Dally to develop a fluoroscope (called the Edison X-ray focus tube). It was a commercial success and is the basis of the modern fluoroscopy used today.
Unfortunately, X-ray was not believed to be dangerous at the time, and Clarence tested the tubes on himself. In 1900, he developed a lesion on his wrist and eventually his hand was amputated. His condition worsened and after the amputation of both arms, he died of cancer.
His illness shook Edison, and he stopped all work on fluoroscopes. In a 1903 interview he said:
“Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” he said. “I am afraid of them. I stopped experimenting with them two years ago, when I came near to losing my eyesight and Dally, my assistant, practically lost the use of both of his arms. I am afraid of radium and polonium too, and I don’t want to monkey with them.” (Source: New York World)
10. One of Edison’s failures with his cement ideas. He invested vast amounts of money and time into this project. He was convinced that he could solve the affordable housing crisis by building houses from concrete. He created a mold for the single pour, but the houses never took off. The venture wasn’t successful, but there are homes built with this technique still standing. However, he has 49 related patents that changed the cement industry.
One of Edison’s single-pour concrete homes in Montclair NJ
11. Edison was a notorious napper and would lie down when he felt the need – sometimes on top of the workbench or the floor of his office or lab.
Yesterday was my sixth visit to the estates and we had a guide “Bo” who was fabulous. Bo had a nice clear voice, lots of good information, a lively sense of humor, and could easily answer questions from the group. I recommend paying the small additional amount to have a tour. If time is short there is a headphone tour option.
The estate is open 7 days a week from 9am to 5:30pm. Cost is $30 per person with a historian-guided tour or $25 with headphone self-guided.
There is a small outdoor cafe near the ticket counter and museum but the hours vary so don’t count on it being open when you are there.
However, Pinchers Edison Fort Myers Marina, a large restaurant overlooking the Caloosahatchee can be accessed right from the river side of the property and is a fun beginning or end of the tour. You can buy your tickets at Pinchers as well as at the museum ticket counter.