By Donna Carter
After spending warm winters in the young metropolis of Fort Myers beginning in the late 1800s, world famous visionary Thomas Edison predicted the town would become a major tourist destination eventually attracting millions of people. At that time, such an idea may have seemed inconceivable, however, this was the man who invented the light bulb so, of course, the prediction came true not just for Fort Myers but the entire Southwest Coast region that includes Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel and Captiva islands.
Not surprisingly, two of the most visited sites that serve as a window to the region’s past are the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Winter Estates. Ford, the world famous car manufacturer and Edison the prolific inventor who held more than 1,000 U.S. patents, were good friends who once owned side-by-side winter homes on the waterfront at Fort Myers. Both properties are now museums and hundreds of thousands of people a year tour the homes as well as Edison’s on-property laboratory.
Visitors learn that Edison’s Fort Myers history began quite by accident – or more accurately – with a health issue. During a Florida trip prescribed by his doctor in 1884, he discovered, and fell in love, with the small fishing village destined to become the Fort Myers of today. Two years later he built his beloved winter home and a complete laboratory on a 5.5-hectare plot of land on the city’s Caloosahatchee River. He and his family spent every winter there until his death in 1931. People who now tour the house find it much the same as Edison left it including original furnishings. The inventor’s laboratory is also as he left it containing a multitude of paraphernalia used in various experiments financed by Harvey Firestone to develop a synthetic rubber. During this search Edison also created such diverse items as the phonograph, telegraph, talking dolls, miner’s lamps and the motion picture camera. The lab continues to be lit by carbon filament light bulbs that, of course, were Edison’s own invention. Surrounding the home and laboratory, impressive botanical gardens are a testament to his expertise as a skilled horticulturist, a pursuit he took as seriously as his work in the lab.
Famous notables who were frequent guests at the Edison Estate included President Teddy Roosevelt, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Harvey Firestone and, of course, Henry Ford in 1915. Like Edison, Ford fell in love with the location and subsequently built a winter home on the property next door to his friend. Tour guides reveal that following Edison’s death the Fords never returned to their winter home which, along with the bulk of its contents, was sold at auction in 1945. The house now features mostly period furnishings, and the garage contains a 1914 Model T Ford, the world’s first mass-produced vehicle and the cornerstone of the auto maker’s fortunes, among other vintage automobiles. The lives of both Ford and Edison are extensively outlined in a museum on the Edison Estate.