January 9, 2015
“There goes the neighbourhood.” Clearly, that’s not what folks were thinking when automobile magnate Henry Ford bought an estate on the Caloosahatchee River in 1916, next door to American inventor Thomas A. Edison’s winter digs. Edison and his family had been living on this patch of Florida coastline since he purchased the grounds in 1885. After drawing the plans himself, Edison had transformed what was mainly cattle country into an elegant main house, a guesthouse, a caretaker’s cottage, a laboratory, and kitchen gardens, all by 1910. Today, these former family plots form the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.
Ford’s purpose in moving next door to Edison was twofold. The men, who called themselves the “vagabonds” and would go camping in Ford’s 1918 Model T camper all over Florida and the rest of the United States (along with friends Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs), were close friends who looked forward to spending their winters together. They were also business partners, looking for ways to invent and make money. For instance, Edison, Ford and Firestone were convinced that the Fort Myers area would be an excellent resource for producing domestic rubber, and planted ficus and banyan trees, as well as experimental plants, on their adjacent properties in order to realize that dream. (Edison had first been attracted to the area because of the easy growth of tropical bamboo, which he used in his light bulbs.) These trees, still thriving and sprawling like something only a mind like Tim Burton could produce, are estimated to be among the oldest in the region. Indeed, the most renowned of them all is a banyan tree, planted in 1925, that covers almost an acre of the grounds.
Today, the historic Edison & Ford Winter Estates, which total 20 acres, are a fascinating trip back in time to genteel “old Florida.” There’s truly something for everyone to explore here. Architecture and design buffs will appreciate the nine restored and preserved Edison Ford family buildings, which include the main houses as well as the guest houses, pool/bath houses and caretakers’ cottages. Gardening enthusiasts will be overjoyed by the more than 1,700 orchids, bromeliads, palms and other plants, representing some 400 species from six continents; you can discover what’s in bloom month by month by visiting the web site, where there’s a “What’s Blooming at the Estates” guide. Science and history devotees will find it difficult to tear themselves away from the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory; likewise, automobile aficionados will want to linger in the Edison Ford Museum, where the exhibits offer new perspectives on how these two men shaped both the business and social appetites of the southwest Florida region.
Even small children will love the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. That’s because the variety of tours offered is geared to every member of the family, from the “Young Inventors’ Tour” to the “Garden Tour” to the daily “River Cruises,” where passengers can revel in a cool breeze, learn from certified naturalists and historians about the Caloosahatchee River and Fort Myers, and spot some indigenous birds and wildlife, including herons, storks, dolphins, manatees and, of course, the American alligator.
The Estates have also developed into a regional educational hub. Art lessons, local authors’ readings, naturalist programs for kids and camps during school breaks all take place at Edison Ford. If you plan ahead of time, you can participate in botanical illustration classes or even enrol your children in “Mimi’s & Mina’s Manners at Edison Ford,” a two-hour dining etiquette course that mines the rich history of Mina Edison, who was considered the finest hostess in Southwest Florida.
For more information about the Edison & Ford Winter Estates and the myriad opportunities on offer there, please visit the website.
Header image: Ford House © Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Hero Image: Edison’s Ford © Flickr/scott_48074
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Written by Jen Karetnick