Thomas Edison had his home in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and his buddy Henry Ford moved Edison’s original laboratory to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan in 1928. But many people are unaware that Edison liked to spend his winters in Fort Meyers, Florida.
Born in 1847, he patented his first invention, an electric vote recorder, in 1869. I wonder what he would have thought of modern Florida’s “hanging chads”. In 1874, he patented the quadruplex telegraph, a device to simultaneously send four messages over one wire, and sold it for enough money to build his research center in Menlo Park. The invention that brought him fame, however, was the phonograph in 1877.
Although he ultimately held 1093 patents, he did not invent the electric light bulb. What he did in 1879 as he often did was perfect someone else’s invention. He made the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb. Other people’s light bulbs were too short-lived or too expensive to produce or use to be practical.Looking for both a warm place to spend his winters and work, Edison purchased his land in 1885, the same year Fort Myers was incorporated. It was not an easy place to reach. He had to take a train south to Florida and then a boat around the tip of Florida to the nearby settlement of Punta Rassa, a shipping point used to send cattle to Cuba. From Punta Rassa, he then took a small boat up the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers.
He made a pencil sketch of his new home, Seminole Lodge, and its gardens which an architect turned into plans. The lumber for the post-and-beam buildings was pre-cut in Maine and shipped to Fort Myers for assembly. Seminole Lodge also includes a guest house. Both have long windows to permit cross-breezes to flow through the rooms from the broad sloping porches.One now parks and purchases tickets near a huge banyan tree given to Edison by Henry Firestone when it was a four-foot sapling in 1925. Still one of the largest in the continental U.S., at one time the tree was about an acre in diameter. It was trimmed back from the buildings, however, for insurance reasons. Crossing McGregor Boulevard, one passes through a picket fence part of Edison’s original design. Edison had the first one and a half miles of McGregor planted with royal palms. The palms now stretch for seven miles. A double row of mango trees was planted inside the fence line spanning the Edison and Ford properties and orchids from all over the world were placed among these trees. Edison was constantly looking at the commercial possibilities of plants, and his property contains more than seventeen hundred exotic plants from flowers to champion trees to thirteen varieties of bamboo.
When Henry Ford persuaded Edison to donate his first lab from the estate to Greenfield Village, Ford build a little office building on the site. Edison’s wife Mina added a garden with a pool, the “Moonlight Garden.” Nearby is a swimming pool Edison built in 1910 using material from the Edison Cement Company and a water system of his own design. He didn’t care to swim but wanted the pool for his family and friends.
Henry Ford purchased an adjoining home in 1916 in order to vacation with his former employer and good friend Edison. Ford’s Caretaker’s Cottage is now a museum store, and a garage-like building added by later owners has an exhibit of historic Ford vehicles.
Ford’s home is furnished in a much more rustic style. Ford was responsible for a revival of American Square Dancing and used to like to have the furniture pushed back for dances whenever he visited.
Ford had one of his trucks converted into a “chuck-wagon.” Edison brought along an electric generator and lighting system, and with Harvey Firestone, the three friends took many “camping” trips complete with cooks, drivers and other help. “Stars” of their era, they were accompanied bymany famous friends including President Harding while he was President. Needless to say, they were also accompanied by photographers and newsmen. There is a film about these “Vagabonds” in the Estates Museum. The museum has seven galleries featuring the lives and work of Ford and Edison. There are a number of interesting automobiles, including the chuck-wagon. But I was particularly interested in Edison’s inventions and improvements on other people’s inventions. Evidently he perfected the qwerty keyboard for what became the Remington Typewriter. You older folks remember mimeograph machines. He invented the mimeograph machine in 1875 and sold the patent rights to A. B. Dick. In 1927, Edison, Ford and Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation. A laboratory was built between what is now the museum, gift shop and ticket office and the banyan tree. Completed in 1928, the laboratory was devoted to finding a quick growing domestic source of natural rubber. Edison supervised the testing of thousands of plants before his death in 1931. Although he had high hopes for a giant variety of goldenrod, he did not succeed, and the project was eventually turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1936. The laboratory was left more or less just as it was at the time of Edison’s death, and it has been recently restored to ensure authenticity of every part — including the fact that there is no air conditioning — while adding necessary items like a fire suppression system. The project took three years to complete. When the laboratory was closed, a scale model was constructed, taking over a year, by one of the men who worked on the film “Star Wars.” Viewers are invited to guess what in the small model was original from the Edison lab period. Like most people, we often overlook what is closest to us. It had been several years since we visited the Edison-Ford Estates, and it was well worth seeing again.