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. Last year alone more than two million visitors arrived from around the globe lured by the area’s legendary beaches, perpetual sunshine, balmy weather, nature-based adventures, golf, water sports and, last but not least, the region’s bounty of historical attractions.

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 US 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.

While the inventor of the light bulb’s historical impact on Fort Myers and the Southwest Region is significant, the earliest history of the area began thousands of years before. Among the most important early sites is Mound Key located in Mound Key Archeological State Park on a small, undeveloped island in Estero Bay south of Fort Myers. Accessible only by boat, the island was largely created by an accumulation of shells deposited there at least 2,000 years ago by the Calusa Indians whose habitation of the area marked the beginning of the settlement of Southwest Florida. Particularly popular among history buffs, Mound Key is believed to have been the major ceremonial centre of the Calusas where interpretive displays and guided tours now reveal their history and way of life. In fact, the region has numerous facilities where history lovers can learn everything there is to know about these early inhabitants. One of the most information-rich repositories is the Randall Research Center on Pine Island together with its Calusa Heritage Trail, an interpretive walkway punctuated by exhibits and information boards detailing the primitive days of the Calusas. Located on the site of a former Calusa village, burial mounds and ritual shell mounds can still be found throughout the island’s subtropical forest. In fact, the Randall Research Center is regarded as one of the most significan archaeological sites in North America.
While the story of the area’s “early peoples” is an important component, it’s but one facet of Southwest Florida’s history. Several regional museums also provide the bigger picture including the Southwest Florida Museum of History that recalls the city’s early period as a fort settlement followed by cattle town and, long before that, the period marked by the arrival of Spanish explorers. Other regional repositories include the Sanibel Historical Village, the Cape Coral Historical Museum, and the Museum of the Islands. In addition, there are numerous places in the region to explore ancient legends such as one involving Useppa Island, a coastal island. Local tradition says this small sub-tropical paradise was once a haven for the pirate, Jose Gaspar, said to have kidnapped a beautiful Spanish princess called Josepha de Mayorga. Held captive there, her name “Josepha” eventually morphed into “Useppa,” by which the island is known today. Whether the story is myth or legend doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the kind of fascinating stuff history buffs enjoy.