By: Gillian Birch
Located on 20 acres of prime riverfront in Fort Myers are the historic winter homes of two of America’s greatest inventors – Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Now wonderfully restored and managed by a non-profit corporation, these landmark homes are one of the main attractions in the area.
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates site includes Seminole Lodge, Edison’s winter home, and The Mangoes which Ford purchased in 1916. There is also a caretaker’s cottage, swimming pool, the original Botanic Research Laboratory, and a number of other buildings set in extensive gardens spanning either side of the busy palm-lined McGregor Boulevard.
Tours of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates offer a choice of tours including Garden Tours, Inside the Lab Tours, Young Inventors Tours, and River Cruises.
One of the most informative and comprehensive tours is the historian-led Behind the Scenes Tour which takes place at specific times each week. It takes two hours to cover all the properties and the newly restored Lab. There are various shorter tours available and a self-guided audio tour of the houses for those wanting to explore the attraction at their own pace.
Most tours begin in the Estates’ Museum where an eclectic collection of exhibits includes many of Edison’s inventions along with family memorabilia and photographs. Edison was a prolific inventor and had over 1000 patents for his inventions, including his phonograph (although he was very hard of hearing), a motion picture camera, and his long-lasting electric light bulb.
Many tours include the restored Botanical Laboratory. Built in 1928, the laboratory resembles a machine shop with a chemical processing area, distillation apparatus, a plant grinding room, office, and a dark room. Restored in 2012 at a cost of $1 million, work benches are still laid out with bottles and test tubes, just as if Edison had stepped out for a moment.
After stopping to photograph the enormous banyan tree which covers one acre of gardens, cross the road to the main gardens and historic homes. The path leads past the cracker-style house that already existed on the land when Edison bought it and is the oldest surviving structure in Fort Myers. It was originally used as a stopover for cattle drovers moving their herds down the dusty thoroughfare that has since become McGregor Blvd. When the Edisons moved to Fort Myers, cattle ranching was the main business in the area and there were fewer than 9,000 residents.
Gardens at Edison and Ford Winter Estates
The gardens are blooming with color in all seasons with hibiscus, euphorbia, trumpet trees, tulip trees, poinciana, gingers, orchids, and many other gorgeous subtropical flowers. Each well-tended plant is clearly labeled, making any tour of the gardens a real treat for gardeners. The Moonlight Garden with a small reflecting pool is one of the most tranquil spots.
Banana plants, mango trees, bamboo stands, and an avenue of royal palms are the main botanical highlights. Incidentally, the Edisons donated the first mile of royal palms lining McGregor Blvd and Fort Myers is now known as the “City of Palms”.
Behind the Scenes Home Tours
Most tours only allow visitors to look through the windows of Seminole Lodge to minimize wear and tear. However, the Behind the Scenes Tour gives visitors access inside and upstairs. Seminole Lodge is filled with the original Edison furnishings including rattan seating, tables, and bookcases. Of great interest are the individually designed brass “electroliers”, which eventually replaced chandeliers and gasoliers in most American homes.
The Mangoes is a similar building, covered in white cladding with generous porches providing shady seating areas. Built in 1911 for Robert Smith, Henry Ford bought it in 1916 and spent several weeks each winter at this retreat.
With an extensive banyan tree covering one acre of gardens, a Visitor Center, Museum, outdoor Café, and a well-stocked Garden Shop, this Fort Myers, Florida attraction offers a full day of educational tours and things to see and do. After browsing around the homes and the garage with early Ford vehicles are on display, the final stop should be at the Ford Cottage Shoppe, once the caretaker’s house on the Ford Estate.