I’ve lived in Florida since 1997, but a certain light bulb never went off in my head until recently. I’m a travel writer, yet I never visited one of Florida’s most noteworthy historical landmarks: the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.
I revved up my motor and headed down to Fort Myers. The winter homes of the two titans of American industry sit side-by-side on 20 acres of lush botanical gardens bordering the Caloosahatchee River. The property straddles McGregor Boulevard, a street lined with tall palms. Edison planted more than 2,000 Royal Palm trees along McGregor Boulevard, offering to maintain them for two years if the city would care for them thereafter. Today, Fort Myers, “City of Palms,” boasts hundreds of those Edison-planted trees that have now grown to more than 75 feet in height.
A walk from the parking lot to the entrance winds past an amazing Banyan tree, planted by Edison around 1925. That four-foot tree now covers almost an acre of the grounds.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931) is considered one of America’s greatest inventors. He developed many devices that became part of everyday life, such as the phonograph, a motion picture camera, and of course, the electric light bulb.
Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison holds 1,093 US patents including a stock ticker, a mechanical vote counter, a battery for an electric car, and recorded music. He developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution allowing homes, businesses, and factories to enter the age of industrialization. Manhattan, N.Y. became the site of the Edison Illuminating Company’s first power station.
As a young man, Henry Ford worked for Edison, who encouraged the young engineer’s ideas. Ford later became the founder of the Ford Motor Company, revolutionizing transportation by making affordable cars widely available. Although Edison was 20 years his senior, the two became good friends. Ford made trips to Florida to visit his mentor, eventually buying the house next door.
Guided tours of the property convey rich information about the two men, and about the research that interested both — like tires for example. The tour includes a peek inside Edison’s home, guesthouse, the Ford home, and other outbuildings. You’ll hear memorable stories about the lives of the Edison and Ford families and their friendships.
The guide explained that Edison arrived in Fort Myers in 1885 and decided to purchase the property. At the time, Fort Myers was virtually inaccessible by land. The few visitors who arrived came by boat from the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Caloosahatchee. When widower Edison married Mina in 1886, Fort Myers became their honeymoon haven and winter home.
Three decades later during WWI, Edison, Ford, and another entrepreneur, Harvey Firestone, built a Botanical Research Lab. They hoped to find a cheap method to obtain rubber. As a result, Edison and his researchers established many of the estate plantings, some still thriving today.. (I did not take the guided tour in the laboratory, but a look inside gave the feeling that it might come alive with experiments at any moment.
The museum houses many fascinating artifacts developed by Edison and Ford. Visiting auto enthusiasts will find the displays of old Ford cars satisfying.
Fort Myers is located in Southwest Florida below Tampa and Sarasota, and above Naples. A weekend getaway can include a night on nearby barrier islands or perhaps exploring Sarasota, St. Petersburg, or Tampa along the Gulf Coast.