November 22, 2014

All Hail the Realm of Edisonia

We should warn you up front that this story may shock you. It may offend you. It may force you to rethink everything you’ve ever thought about ritual animal sacrifices. Then again, it probably won’t do any of those things (because it has absolutely nothing to do with ritual animal sacrifices). In fact, as much as we were hoping to bring you a story of the occult operating right under our very noses, replete with graveyard candlelit séances, people speaking in tongues and current wholesale pricing on cloaks, what we found, instead, was a charming group of southern belles offering us tea sandwiches and brandy Alexanders. Charming southern belles from Fort Myers, mind you, who also happen to have an insatiable desire for tradition and for placing crowns on the heads of attractive and well-bred local kids. Welcome to the mystical realm of Edisonia.
 

Sovereign subtly: King Donald Lee Brinson Jr. and Queen Chelsea Brice Carter rule over the 2010 court of Edisonia, made up of some of Lee County’s best and brightest (and shiniest).

If you’re not from Fort Myers, Edisonia is an enigma wrapped in a doily shrouded by a congenial time warp. And even if you are from Fort Myers, it might still look like a relic of the old South. (See accompanying photos or check out their Facebook page.) All we knew for sure when we heard about it was that the organization—with its dukes, duchesses, princes and princesses from the very best families—came into being shortly after the death of Thomas Alva Edison and that they didn’t take kindly to outsiders. That was enough for us to envision members chanting in unison around an abnormally large incandescent bulb and, perhaps, some ties to the Illuminati. We even thought they might have Edison’s bones hidden in a secret chamber. (OK, maybe I was the only one who thought that.)

But just how would we gain access to their inner sanctum without arousing suspicion? Would we have to take an assumed name? A blood oath? Knock one of the hooded princes unconscious as he walked down a crypt’s darkened hallway, quickly changing into his robes? Almost. We had to call the Fort Myers Woman’s Community Club and ask for “Peach.” Mary “Peach” Sonne (pronounced Sony), the president of the Past Presidents of the FMWCC, promised to meet and illuminate us on the Edison Pageant of Light, a.k.a. “Edisonia.” (“It’s the same thing, just easier than saying Edison Pageant of Light all the time,” says Sue Grimes, the historian of the Edison Pageant of Light.)

Sonne, as well as Grimes, (both former queens of Edisonia) met us at the organization’s lair—sorry, headquarters—in the historic Langford-Kingston Home in Fort Myers. It’s there they plan such diabolical events as “Mother-Daughter Pink Teas,” “Holiday House” and something called “Flower Show.” The 50-something Sonne and the 70-something Grimes (one never asks a lady her actual age) both came sporting floral prints just as a combat veteran wears camouflage, but with a quilted stitch—so you know they meant business.

“The pageant is really to commemorate Edison,” said Grimes, in one of the most pleasant southern accents you could ever hope to hear. “You see, Mr. Edison celebrated his birthday royally every year here—presidents would come.” Presidents of the United States, that is.

According to Sonne, Edison first came to Fort Myers in 1885 and fell in love with the weather. By 1887 he had built a laboratory here to continue his experiments during the winter months. His impressive list of friends—President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, just to name a few—were all regular visitors. In fact, Ford eventually purchased the home next door to Edison on the Caloosahatchee River. (Both are now museums.) Since Edison’s birthday fell on Feb. 11, he was always in Fort Myers to celebrate. And celebrate he did. Eventually, his birthday party grew to be a citywide event. Old-timers recall Edison even serving cake to local kids on the former Municipal Pier. And when he died in 1931, the city went into mourning. The man who gave the world the phonograph, the motion picture camera and, of course, the long-lasting electric light bulb was such an integral part of the community that memorial services were held each year on Feb. 11.

But after seven years of sorrow, Ronald Halgrim, a close friend of Edison and editor of The Fort Myers Press, suggested it was time to celebrate the man’s genius—and nothing says “celebrate genius” like ball gowns and self-appointed royalty. Amongst the royal regalia still used: crowns (the queen’s stands almost a foot high, weighs three pounds and is studded with Austrian crystals, while the king’s weighs a whopping five pounds); 10- and 13-foot-long robes made of green velvet, rabbit and ermine fur with the letter “E” sewn onto them; and royal scepters. At Halgrim’s request, the FMWCC and the Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored a three-day pageant honoring Edison.

 

Paper trail: The Edison Pageant of Light, honoring the late inventor, has been a major social event in Fort Myers since its origin in 1938.The city already had a strong history of pageants and celebrations, as were the custom of the time. In the late 1800s, when the city was primarily a cow town, an event was held where the wranglers could show off their roping and riding skills. The winner of the contest was entitled to pick the “Queen of Love and Beauty.” That eventually morphed into the Sun Worshipers Celebration—in an attempt to draw visitors to Fort Myers, which was still very small and unknown in the 1920s (the city’s population was an anemic 9,082 in 1930). During this event, a Sunshine King and Queen were picked. Historians claim that festival lost its gumption once people realized it actually rained here part of the time. The next thing you know, it’s 1938 and the Edison Pageant of Light, “Edisonia,” was born and pomp and regalia had a new home.

The new Edison Pageant of Light included the memorial service for Edison, a street carnival and a parade featuring bands and floats from far and wide and culminated with the crowning of a king and queen of the mythical realm of Edisonia at a fanciful gala. That year five young men and five young women were selected to the court (it then switched to four), and from there a king and queen were chosen to preside over the festivities. Among the first court was a young Bernese Barfield (better known now as Berne Davis). And while she missed out on being named queen in 1938, she made up for that in 1939.

“I honestly thought I was Miss America,” recalls Davis, laughing. “It was such a wonderful experience and so very exciting. It was just great to be a part of it. The parades were so long—we had bands from all across the country, but I guess traveling expenses have curtailed that. And at the time we would then go to different towns—Miami, St. Petersburg, Tampa—and ride on floats representing Fort Myers and they’d come here. I still think it’s a wonderful thing for the young people. They get to learn how to dress and go to formal affairs… They’re not as much fun for me anymore because all of my contemporaries are gone,” she adds. “And I never had any kids involved.”

Frankly, it’s that expectation for the next generation that keeps families participating year after year. Sue Grimes was a queen in 1955. Her daughter Susie was a member of the court in the ’70s. Susie’s daughter Liz was queen in 2008. Young adults from the city’s finest families are regularly selected to yearly courts as dukes and duchesses. The next year they move up to princes and princesses and that year’s king and queen are chosen from that group. It was and still is immensely popular. And a serious sense of pride for the family to have a child named king or queen.

From their semi-humble beginnings, the festivities grew to include marching band competitions, baby parades, flower shows, fireworks, art shows, science fairs, boat races, golf and tennis tournaments, square dancing, concerts and one of the most competitive gopher tortoise races in North America. “People would glue things to their backs to make them more identifiable, but we eventually gave that up when they became a threatened species,” says Grimes. But through it all, the pinnacle of the celebration was the coronation of the king and queen, who rode on a float in the following day’s parade—and still do. Most of the other cities have since dropped their pageants or morphed them into other events.

The overall event also grew to such an extent that by 1989, it was deemed necessary to separate the festival (the parade, competitions, art shows, etc.) from the pageant (a.k.a. the royal court of Edisonia). That separation allowed the pageant to remain in a virtual time capsule, maintaining its tradition while staying largely out of the spotlight, a mystery to all but the connected locals who participated.

To this day it remains true to its roots, celebrating the man who brought light to the world. His portrait is brought to the Harborside Events Center for both the Kings and Queens Ball (where the new dukes and duchesses are announced) and again, two weeks later at the Coronation Ball (where the new king and queen are announced—voted on by members of the pageant and the FMWCC). In case you’re wondering, the court’s role is purely ceremonial—although their family’s private sector influence is surely felt throughout Southwest Florida. These families have counties named after them, streets, performing arts centers, car dealerships and a host of other recognizable edifices the rest of us take for granted.

Crowing achievements: Mrs. Mina Edison, the widow of Thomas Edison, along with Sidney Davis, crown 1946’s Queen Frances Harris Gresham as King Archie Odom looks on (left). In 1939, Queen Bernese Barfield Davis ruled alongside King Jack McDowell (right).It should be noted that through no fault of their own, these kids are young, good-looking and white. A recent effort to be more inclusive, by expanding the number of court member levels from six men and six women to 12 of each—as well as opening it up to anyone from Lee County between the ages of 19 and 24—hasn’t really diversified it. Yet. Of course, hope springs eternal in the realm of Edisonia.