August 31, 2014

The House (and Gardens) That Tom Built

Seventy-one years after the death of Thomas Alva Edison, his legacy remains strong. And during February, the month of his birth, the town of Fort Myers goes Edison-crazy with an inventor's fair, pageants and a parade. Located in a residential neighborhood on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, the Edison estate offers 117 years of history to over 300,000 visitors a year. But even a tour by its talented tour guides cannot tell you everything. There's more to the history of the Edison estate than most visitors know, as these 10 questions and answers about Southwest Florida's most popular tourist attraction reveal

1. Aren't there actually two homes on the estate?

Yes. The Edison Estate consists of two identical buildings bridged by a pergola in the center. The favorite story holds that Edison did not like the smell of food cooking, so he wanted the kitchen as far away from his bedroom as possible. But the truth is that when Edison first journeyed to Southwest Florida in 1885, he came with a business partner, Ezra Gilliland. In the months after Edison purchased his Fort Myers property, he convinced Gilliland to share it. Twin homes were built, and this arrangement worked fine until 1889 when Gilliland backstabbed Edison in a business deal.

Edison severed ties with Gilliland and was so bitter that he avoided Fort Myers for 13 years. In 1892 Gilliland's home was sold to Ambrose McGregor, the Standard Oil executive for whom McGregor Boulevard is named. McGregor owned the home for 10 years before Edison was able to purchase it. Beginning in 1902, Mina Edison, the wife of the inventor, began overseeing renovations to unify the homes. The kitchen and servants' quarters, along with the dining room, were moved to the former Gilliland home, which was called the "guest home." Five years later a pergola was built to complete the marriage of the two structures.

2. Did the home have its own name, like the White House?

Yes, the Edisons called their Fort Myers home "Seminole Lodge."

3. Was it really a prefabricated house?

No. By definition, prefabricated homes are constructed in standardized sections. The Edison home, or rather, both of the homes, were designed by a Boston architect who sent the plans to a lumber company in Maine, which precut the materials and made the doors and windows. Everything was shipped by schooner to Fort Myers where a cadre of laborers began the assembly. The home was scheduled for completion long before Edison's 1886 arrival. But when the inventor landed with his new bride, the house was still incomplete.

4. Was Edison the first Southwest Florida resident to have electric lights?

Yes, but not as soon as he planned. After his first visit in 1885, Edison promised to return the next year, "and do great things for Fort Myers with a 40 horsepower engine and an electric light to illuminate the bluff." For long months before his return with his bride, Edison worked to ensure everything at his honeymoon home was in order, including state-of-the-art lighting. He ordered "electroliers," early electric chandeliers, removed from his Menlo Park Laboratory and sent to Fort Myers. They were wired and ready when Edison's schooner docked. There was just one problem. The generator necessary to create the electricity never arrived. The inventor of the incandescent bulb likely spent his honeymoon by candlelight. But on March 27, 1887, the citizens of Fort Myers gathered at the home to witness history. The switch was pulled. For the first time, a newspaper reported, Edison's electric light "burst out into a radiance that threatened to obscure even the brilliant sun of Fort Myers." They were the first electric light bulbs seen on the west coast, south of Tampa.

5. Did Edison originally plan to have such extensive gardens?

Yes and no. Edison was no gardener, but the exotic tropical plants and trees of Southwest Florida inspired him. In April of 1886, he put together a landscape and gardening plan for the Edison and Gilliland estate. Edison knew the soil was nutrient poor, so he ordered his gardener to take black muck from the river. He also had him put a layer of mulch-like material under the new soil to "prevent it from going clean through to China." In his plan, Edison desired "to carry everything to excess-extreme down here." He called for the planting of thick rows of royal poinciana trees along the boulevard, 8-foot tall cabbage palms between the home, and local bamboo around the central fountain. But the dispute with Gilliland put an end to Edison's formal gardening plans. Many of the plants established in 1886 and 1887 died out in the years Edison was absent from Fort Myers. By his return in 1900, the formal gardens had all but disappeared. Over the next 30 years he collected two kinds of plants-ornamentals and plants he hoped would supply natural rubber for his new experiments. He had seedlings sent from foreign nations. Others were found closer to home. He often traded cuttings with the Koreshan Unity in Estero and tramped around local swamps and woods looking for rubber producing plants.

6. Did Edison have the area's first swimming pool?

No, the Royal Palm Hotel (Gulfshore Life, January 2001) had the first swimming pool in the region. Perhaps because his wife and children spent so much time at the hotel pool, Edison built his own private pool in 1910. Although rumors persist that the inventor's pool was made of bamboo, it was composed of sturdier materials. It was made from three parts shell, cinders and broken stone; two parts sand, and one part Edison brand Portland cement. Galvanized iron bars reinforced the cement and helped it to endure to today.

Edison was never much of a swimmer, preferring to "exercise his brain." His family frequently used the pool even though it was often cold. In 1920, Mina wrote a letter to her mother reporting, ".had our first dip in [the] pool. Water like ice so it was veritably a dip."

7. Did famous people visit Edison in Florida?

Yes, Seminole Lodge was host to many famous people. The most well-known visitors were Edison's cronies. Auto manufacturer Henry Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone were frequent guests. Ford enjoyed the region and his time with Edison so much that in 1916 he bought the house next door 6. Writers were also drawn to Seminole Lodge. Naturalist John Burroughs visited in 1914. After a camping trip in the Everglades, he proclaimed the region "more beautiful than Honolulu."

8. Was Edison the first in the region to plant royal palm trees?

No. In the 1880s when Thomas Edison first visited, royal palm trees grew wild in the region. But Edison did not include royal palms in his 1886 landscape plans for the estate. The earliest royal palms in Fort Myers were probably planted in 1886. They stood for years at the corner of Broadway and Main Street thanks to a local merchant named C. L. Starnes. In 1897, they were planted at the Fort Myers Hotel, and so impressed the owner that he renamed it the Royal Palm Hotel. According to historian Karl Grismer, it was the hotel's regal royal palms which inspired Edison to plant his own in 1907. Edison was so pleased with his own trees that he planted royal palms along a one-mile stretch on Riverside Avenue (later called McGregor Boulevard). So, while Edison was not the first to plant royal palm trees, he was the one of the catalysts behind making Fort Myers the City of Palms.

9. Was Edison a pet owner?

Yes, and how! Edison loved animals-domestic and wild. Over the years he and Mina had a series of cocker spaniels, and in 1901, he sent some monkeys by train to Fort Myers. Although they were supposed to entertain Theodore, his 3-year-old son, Mina reported, "The monkeys are a great source of amusement-Papa and son both." Over the years, his son Theodore reported that Seminole Lodge was home to: "chickens, 2 cats, 2[ra]coons, 1 dog, 1 calf, 1 cow, 1 pelican, 1 pigeon, 1 gopher, 1 terapin(sic) and 2 alligators." The Edison Estate was a very wild place indeed.

10. How did Edison's home become a museum?

In October of 1931, Thomas Edison died at his New Jersey home. In the years to follow, his widow, Mina, mourned and then began a life of her own. For the next 16 years, she continued to return to Fort Myers. The stately lady was a constant booster of Southwest Florida.

As she grew older and made plans for her own death, Mina considered something that had happened in the 1920s. Henry Ford had asked for permission to remove Edison's electrical laboratory to his museum in Michigan. The inventor agreed. He soon encountered opposition from his wife and then the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. The group complained that the building would be, "disassociated from its real history." Having already promised the lab to Ford, Edison kept his word. The laboratory was disassembled and moved to Greenfield Village in 1927.

On February 19, 1947, just months before her death, Mina Miller Edison essentially bequeathed the entire Edison Estate to the City of Fort Myers. For the sum of one dollar the city purchased the property and its buildings and promised to preserve them, "in perpetuity, in memory of the grantor's deceased husband, THOMAS ALVA EDISON, as a public park."

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