Thomas Edison's

Thomas Edison's Laboratory

Historical documents and
photographs were used
to ensure that everything in
Edison’s Botanical Laboratory
were placed back in its
original position.

Mina Edison's Moonlight Garden

Henry Ford's House

Holiday Nights at the Edison House

History Renewed

by Carol DeFrank

WHEN THOMAS EDISON and Henry Ford wintered in Florida the men not only relaxed, but worked together to make the world a better place. Little did they realize that the world would be enjoying the fruits of their labor more than 100 years later.

The 21 acres, many along the Caloosahatchee River, created a tranquil setting for lovely homes, beautiful gardens, and a functional laboratory. Traditions developed, famous guests were welcomed and experiments continued.

The retreat the two families enjoyed for many years morphed into the Edison & Ford Winter Estates and has become one of the top ten most visited historic sites in the United States. Tourist numbers continue to grow and are up over last year bringing the annual total of visitors to more than 250,000. Working diligently to maintain those numbers are 80 paid staff, 250 volunteers and 7,500 supporters who are involved in the Estates’ membership program.

In 1947, sixteen years after Edison’s death, his wife Mina sold their estate to Fort Myers for $1 and it was opened to the public a few years later. Eventually the city purchased Ford’s property and combined the two sites. Ford’s estate opened to the public in 1990.

In 2003, the city fathers began to lay the ground work to tackle major restorations of the award-winning gardens and historic buildings. Under the direction of President & Chief Executive Officer Chris Pendleton, a Board of Trustees was founded and in 2006, an independent non-profit organization was formed to govern and manage both properties.

The first item on the Board’s agenda was creating and implementing a restoration plan. It was agreed that the period of interpretation would be 1929. By that year all the present buildings were on the property and while the Edison’s wintered there regularly, that was the only year they spent Christmas in Florida. The Edison main house, guest house, caretaker’s house, the Ford house, and the gardens were all part of the plan.

The work was scheduled to be completed in phases. “We didn’t want to close down during the restoration so instead we encouraged our curators to include background history in their daily tour information,” explains Pendleton. “This enabled us to work without closing the estates. It took a lot of creative and incremental thinking but it was worth it.”

Funding for the $14 million project came from grants. The City of Fort Myers, Lee County, State of Florida, HUD, as well as corporate and private companies provided grants and donations. Pendleton admits, ”We like being self-supportive, but realize that resources need to be used wisely. We may be a not-for-profit, but we are still a business.”

The gardens were Edison’s baby so it was a unanimous decision to begin there. About 400 species of plants from six different continents are among more than 1,000 floral and fauna that make up the gardens, many of which Edison used in his experiments.

Of the four champion trees on the property the most famous is the Banyan. Planted in the mid-20s, the tree was approximately four feet tall and two inches in diameter. Its now considered one of the largest Banyans in the United States, spanning about an acre and standing 65 feet tall. Pendleton explains, “Eventually we want to relocate parking to property we own on Larchment Street. This will make it possible for the tree to continue to grow. In the past we’ve had to trim it due to lack of space.”

Other trees on the property include more than 50 species of palms, tropical fruit trees and an original Mysore Fig. The Garden Shoppe collects seeds from the plants and trees, propagates them in the greenhouse and the nursery then sells them. It’s one of many ways the Estates raise funds.

The Botanical Laboratory was second in line for restoration. The three year, million dollar project included building stabilization and restoring the exterior siding, windows and roof. It now has a state-of-the-art fire suppression and alarm system as well as new access. Historical documents and photographs were used to ensure that everything in the lab found its way back to its original position. Future restoration for the lab includes landscaping, including replanting of the outlying research gardens.

The lab was conceived and funded by Edison, Ford and Harvey Firestone in 1927 when the three men formed the Edison Botanic Research Company. The sole purpose of the company was to find a natural source of rubber as it was becoming scarce during World War I. Edison continued to use the lab until he died in 1931. However, rubber production was never a commercial success so Ford, Firestone and Mina dissolved the corporation in 1936.

The lab boasts the prestigious designation as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Pendleton says the Board is currently working to get the lab a state landmark designation.

Work began on the museum with a $50,000 donation used to install rubber flooring in the orientation gallery. The 15,000 square foot building consists of multiple galleries of displays, exhibits, artifacts, and hundreds of Edison and Ford inventions, history, collections, and objects, as well as video theaters.

The music and movie gallery features several new displays including suspended parts of a phonograph that provides a 360 degree view of its internal parts. Close by is a story-telling exhibit depicting the history of recording beginning with the use of tin foil upto vinyl records, cassette tapes, computer discs, culminating with iPods and beyond. There is also a moving picture exhibit that begins in the15th century and continues to today’s smart phone.

A hands-on gallery for children will be added in 2017. Ten tables will be set up for kids to interactively learn not only how inventions came about but why they work the way they do.

Another major undertaking was the caretaker’s house. The main section of this building is one of the oldest structures in Fort Myers and is a great example of a Florida ‘cracker’ house, which dates back to the 1870s. The building was not only restored but modernized. In addition to insuring the soundness of the structure, it now has air conditioning, modern lighting and Wi-Fi access, so it can now be used for educational programming, summer camp classes and as a display space.

As if all that isn't enough, a replica of the river pavilion is currently under construction in the Coconut Grove area that sits between the lily pond and the riverside pier. The new structure will be fully functional. The framework is finished and work is expected to be completed by fall.

Another exciting project in the works is replicating Henry Ford’s quadricycle. Automotive Curator James Moss is leading the project. A special celebration will be scheduled for the unveiling.

The Ediosn & Ford Winter Estates has collected numerous accolades including top awards from National Garden Clubs, National Register of Historic Places, Florida Heritage Landmark, Summit Award in Historic Restoration for Edison Botanic Research Lab, and the Great Floridian Heritage Award to name a few. It is also listed on the National Historic Register and is a Florida Landmark.

“We are proud of all of our awards and are currently working to have Edison’s patents (1093), Ford’s (161) and Firestone’s (fewer than 10) accepted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame,” says Pendleton.

A number of events are scheduled for fall and winter including: Holidays Nights (which is on the Southeastern Tourism Society Top 20 Events list), Antique Car Shows, Garden Market, lectures, book signings, art shows and Airing of the Quilts.

The Estates’ education and community programs cover science, history, the arts and culture. There are year-round classes for children and adults, school outreach programs, summer camps, and college internships. All programs and events are open to the public and many are free. There is also an offsite education program that reaches 25,000 students every year.

With all the important restoration and much-needed renovations and improvements, the Estates’ Board is certainly living up to their Mission Statement, “To provide unique educational experiences based on the artifacts, legacy and lives of Thomas Edison & Henry Ford with emphasis on their Florida history, science and invention. The purpose is to inspire the public to learn from these experiences. As such, the mission includes the preservation and interpretation of their homes, gardens, laboratory and related objects and artifacts.” •

The Edison & Ford Winter Estates are located at 2350 McGregor Blvd. in downtown Fort Myers’ Historic River District. The Estates are open year-round (except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). Daily tours, both guided or self-guided with audio, are available. For information, call 334-7419.

September-October 2016

September-October 2016