UNITED STATES

Fort Myers, FL

Where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Relaxed and Entertained

Thomas Edison’s lab at his winter home in Fort Myers, Florida

A corner of the chemistry lab in Thomas Edison's winter home in Fort Myers, Florida. Edison never stopped experimenting; in all, he took out U.S. patents for 1,093 inventions.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

WHEN INVENTOR Thomas Alva Edison first came to this Gulf Coast municipality in 1885, with plans to make it his winter home, the people who ran the place were singularly unimpressed. The local paper reported only that, “Thomas A. Edison, the electrician, is visiting here.”

Later, after Edison had perfected the light bulb (he didn’t invent it: English and French scientists had made primitive bulbs much earlier), he couldn’t even interest Fort Myers in electricity. He offered to build a power station and light the streets, but city council turned him down on the grounds that the lights would keep cows awake and cut milk production.

The snubs are ironic today, since Thomas Edison is one-half of Fort Myers’ biggest single tourist attraction. The other half is Henry Ford.

In 1916 Ford purchased the home next to Edison’s. The inventor and the auto magnate were already friends. The two holidayed together in Fort Myers regularly until Edison’s death in 1931.

The side-by-side houses and grounds to which Edison and Ford fled to escape the north’s chill are now the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a National Register Historic Site, restored to look as they would have in 1929.

The first thing that visitors see when they come to the estates is a huge banyan tree, brought from India as a sapling about 1925; it now covers nearly half a hectare and guides say it is the second-largest banyan tree in the world. (The largest is in Maui, Hawaii.) The banyan tree is part of the eight-hectare botanical garden Edison planted. It still contains more than 1,000 plants from around the world.

In the guided tours and self-guided audio tours, visitors see exhibits that chronicle the lives of these two industrial geniuses, and wander through places where Edison and Ford entertained the likes of Harvey Firestone, the rubber magnate, Ransom E. Olds, of the Oldsmobile auto empire, and presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding.

The centrepiece of one exhibition is Edison’s 1914 Model T Ford that the auto man gave to Edison. Ford wanted to customize the car by adding side windows, but Edison refused. He liked it as it was because he didn’t need to roll down the window to spit out the tobacco juice from the cheroots he chewed on.

The Edison Ford Museum shows many of Edison’s inventions, such things as stock tickers, storage batteries, motion-picture equipment and, of course, the phonograph. In all, the guides say, he took out U.S. patents for 1,093 inventions or improvements on earlier inventions. Not bad for a man who had only three months of formal schooling. His mother, angry that his teacher in Milan, Ohio had said the boy “would never amount to anything,” yanked him from school and taught him herself.

Another interesting note is that Edison would have been Canadian, but for the fact that his father picked the wrong side in a fight. Samuel Edison, living in Ontario, took part in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion and fled to Ohio when it failed.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Edison & Ford Winter Estates visit its website at www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.

For information on Florida go to the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation website at www.visitflorida.com.