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One of the main beliefs
The Koreshan settlement
Paintings by Douglas Arthur
Estero's 19th Century Settlement
by Gillian Birch
THE KORESHAN STATE Historic Site is a unique and fascinating place to visit just off US-41 in Estero. This preserved site of a 19th century religious community has 11 original buildings, Victorian gardens, a nature trail along the Estero River, canoeing, and camp sites within the 200-acre park.
Koreshanity began in Estero in 1893 and lasted until 1982 when the last member died. Self-guided tours, maps and information boards are available for those who want to tour the grounds at their own pace. However, I can recommend taking the 90-minute ranger-led tour to learn more about the day-to-day operations of this historic community and the controversial beliefs of its founder and leader, Dr. Cyrus Teed.
In addition to the tours, Koreshan hosts the Estero Concert Series, which attracts professional musicians and world class opera singers to perform in the atmospheric Art Hall.
What to Expect on an Historic Walking Tour
You can book your place on the next guided tour when you pay the admission at the entrance ranger station. Tours begin in the beautiful Art Hall which is used for public concerts as it was in the days of the Koreshan Unity Settlement. The hall is filled with artworks by former Koreshan members and by Dr. Teeds son, Douglas Arthur Teed, who became a well-known landscape and portrait artist in New York. The most remarkable exhibit is the globe which shows the world as we know it, but instead on the inner shell of the earths outer atmosphere, as Dr. Teed believed it was.
The tour continues along crushed shell paths to the cherry orchard outside the Planetary Court building. Here the tour expounds upon Dr. Teeds life and illumination in 1869, which led him to Chicago and then to Estero to found his Koreshan Unity. The word Koreshan appropriately means shepherd in Persian. The new order followed a mix of Old Testament, Far Eastern ideas, reincarnation. and Teeds own scientific beliefs. His ultimate aim was to define the universe through science.
About 3,000 members lived outside the Koreshan settlement with their families while 300 other members chose to join the religious order, which required giving their property to the community and living a life of celibacy. The followers were hard-working people and the community was self-sufficient, even providing services to the wider local community. They valued education and the arts and had their own drama group and 17-piece orchestra which performed at public concerts.
The three-story Planetary Court is a fine example of Georgia Foursquare architecture, built in 1904. The cream clapboard house with its shady front porch was home to The Seven Sisters, who provided much of the original finance Teed required to establish his community and saw to the day-to-day business of the settlement. Each woman had her own simply furnished room and a caretaker looked after them and lived at the top of the house, in the cupola. The house has a craftsman-built staircase carved from beautiful date pine, but there are no baths or kitchen as the Sisters ate formally each evening at the communal dining area.
All the surviving Koreshan buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, but surprisingly there was never a church on site. You can look inside the bakery, which once made up to 600 loaves of bread a day. The yeast bread was in great demand locally as it was much tastier than the local cornbread. Other buildings include the two-room Vesta Newcombe building Vesta arrived at the community as a child and lived there until her death in her 90s. Nearby, there is a huge oil-driven generator which powered band saws and machinery as well as providing power to the surrounding farms.
The Koreshan Unity was totally dependent upon Dr. Teed and after his death in 1908 many followers became disillusioned when his teachings about his resurrection were not fulfilled. Eventually the Koreshan community, its archives and substantial acreage were donated to the state of Florida, in 1961.
Koreshan Gardens & Nature Trail
The final part of the tour explores the gardens where there are many specimen trees sourced by Dr. Teed on his travels all over the world. Look for the huge Australian Monkey Puzzle Tree, the exotic flowers on the Bombax (red silk cotton tree), the Ear Tree and the African Sausage Tree. Fruit trees, pecans, magnolias and red pineapples with their exotic pink fruits thrive alongside azaleas and palms.
Landscaped mounds make a popular place for the burrowing Gopher Tortoises and two decorative bridges provide an interesting focal point. Massive Washingtonian Palms planted in 1896 line the Grande Promenade which is visible from the Bamboo Landing. Its a good place to watch canoeists paddling in the clear shallow waters of the Estero River, which was the main access to the settlement before US-41 was paved. This area is the start of the Nature Trail, a pleasant 30-minute walk along the river through immense bamboo stands and a picnic area to end at the boat ramp. Otters, herons, bobcats, foxes, alligators, snakes, and a variety of birds of prey can all be found in the park.
The tour ends at the Founders House, built for Cyrus Teed in 1896 and surprisingly comfortably furnished. There is an interesting display of old photographs of the Koreshan community in its heyday and an informative PBS film which gives more background detail to this short-lived and unique religious sect.