Sunday, May 06, 2001

Edison museum pays tribute to famous inventor

Fort Myers home beside Henry Ford's

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here's a bright idea: Next time you're in Fort Myers, visit the Thomas Edison Estate and Museum. The attraction is not only a monument to his thousands of inventions, like the electric light bulb, but also to his love of botany and discovery.

        And it's a reminder of his close friendship with automobile innovator Henry Ford. The museum encompasses the two great men's side-by-side winter homes in the heart of Fort Myers.

        Mr. Edison discovered Fort Myers while working on his most famous invention. He came across the Florida cattle town in 1885 while searching for the perfect material for the light bulb filament. Following the trail of bamboo up the Caloosahatchee River, Mr. Edison and his friend Ezra Gilliland fell in love with the sleepy little village. Together they purchased land far from the center of town, 1 1/2 miles down a cattle trail.

    What: Edison and Ford Estates.
    Where: Fort Myers, Fla.
    When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday. Last tour leaves at 4 p.m.
    Cost: $12 adults, $5.50 children 6-12 and free for children under 6.
    Information: Edison and Ford Estates, 2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, FL 33901; (941) 334-7419;
        Their two homes were built on the riverfront property, mirror images of each other, plus a laboratory so that Mr. Edison could have “working vacations.” The lumber for the project was precut in Maine and shipped to Fort Myers by schooner.

        Unfortunately, Mr. Edison and Mr. Gilliland had a falling out and for 14 years Mr. Edison did not come back to his Florida home. By 1906, however, Mr. Edison had purchased the Gilliland home, made renovations to both sites and again began spending his winters at “Seminole Lodge” until his death in 1931.

        In spring 1947, Mr. Edison's widow donated the estate to the city of Fort Myers and in November of that year, public touring of the estate began. Her stipulation was that the estate remain exactly as it was during Mr. Edison's life.

        Visitors see Mr. Edison's 14-acre gardens, filled with exotic plants from around the world; his home, with family decorations and comfortable furnishings, and his laboratories, just as he left them, with innovations and inventions that changed the world and made Life magazine name him the Man of the Millennium.

        After buying a ticket in a gift shop across the street, the walking tour starts with a description of some of the plants in the garden. The garden started as a working garden for Mr. Edison, as he experimented with the products and byproducts of plants from around the world.

        The tropical botanical garden contains more than 1,000 varieties of plants, including African sausage trees and an enormous banyan tree. The tree, with its multiple branches that grow out and down into the ground, forming what appear to be more trees, makes visitors feel they are walking through a small forest to get into the gift shop. Later, in awe, they are told that it's all one tree, not hundreds.

        The Edison museum is famous for its banyan tree, said to be the third-largest in the world at 400 feet wide. It was a gift in 1925 from Harvey Firestone, automobile tire innovator and another good friend of Mr. Edison's.

        Inside the home, visitors see where Mr. Edison entertained friends, including Mr. Firestone, Mr. Ford and naturalist John Burroghs.

        The house is actually two houses — his and Mr. Gilliland's — blended into one. They feature wide wraparound porches, several sets of French doors kept open to welcome the cooling breezes and tons of the wicker furniture that was popular in the 1920s.

        Mr. Edison's winter home also featured one of Florida's first modern swimming pools, built in 1910 with Edison Portland Cement, for which he had 40 patents dealing with its development and production. But the inventor never used the pool, believing that mental exercise was the only kind he needed.

        The tour also includes Mr. Ford's home next door. Mr. Ford reportedly met Mr. Edison at a convention, and they began corresponding. Several years later, in 1915, the Fords visited the Edisons at their Fort Myers home. The next year, Mr. Ford bought the adjacent home. The Fords only spent about two weeks a year in the home, which has been open to the public since 1990. The city is still working to restore it fully to its condition 80 years ago.

        After the Ford home, the guided tour concludes with a walk through Mr. Edison's laboratory. Here, workers helped Mr. Edison in his research on goldenrod as a source of natural rubber. Things there are just as Mr. Edison left them — including his “cat-nap” cot.

        Visitors are encouraged to tour on their own through an Edison museum, complete with the histories of some his most famous inventions, including gramophones, moving pictures and electrical light bulbs. There's even an Edison impersonator giving speeches and answering questions in character.

        Mr. Edison died in 1931 at 84. He held 1,093 patents.


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