Edison In Florida!
“I was born in Fort Myers when Lee County had 18,000 residents, most roads were dirt, and the wheels on our cars were square,” joked popular local author DL Havlin in introducing his entertaining program, “Edison in Florida,” at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library on December 17. “But enough about me – we are here to discuss Thomas Alva Edison and his impact on Florida!”
“Before Edison started visiting here, we should know about his background, as that shaped who he became. Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, and received much of his personality and influence from his father. His formal education amounted to just three months but his mother was a schoolteacher so he not only had a lot of home schooling, but was a voracious reader, learning most of his knowledge from books. He began working at the railroad at the ripe old age of 12 for spending money for his experiments, started his first business at 13, and trained as a telegraph operator at 14, where he became familiar with electricity that would be the core of all he would accomplish. His first invention came at age 18 to make calligraphy easier. He wrote or sketched out most of his inventions in journals prior to starting, to work out issues.”
Edison received his first patent in 1868, at age 21, Havlin explained, “for a telegraph repeating device, so the operator did not have to repeat the messages by hand. Edison worked 18 hour days, with few off, so those in his life had to accept they would be second to his workaholic ways. He had an outgoing personality who was a real self-promoter that brought him much success, but he was manipulative and that caused him problems. Due to his famous inventions, like the telephone, light bulb, movies and phonograph, he was already a major celebrity when he first visited Florida.”
Havlin stated that Edison married twice, “first to Mary in 1872, when he was 24 and she 16, and that lasted 12 years, until her death from a heroin overdose due to depression. His relationship with Mary was as good as any in his life and he mourned her deeply for several months. In 1886, he married Mina when he was 39 and she 19, with Mina bearing a striking resemblance to Mary, each being curvaceous and buxom. Mina was the Grande Dame of Fort Myers, who loved this community and all its citizens, except for a few who she referred to as ‘stuffed shirts!’ He had three children with each wife, with none particularly noteworthy; in fact, one son was just a notch above a con man, and a daughter who was a flapper who Henry Ford referred to as ‘an unpaid whore!’”
Edison’s finances fluctuated much of his life, “constantly going from rich to bankrupt to wealthy again,” Havlin emphasized. “Those who were partners usually started out as friends and supporters but ended up enemies and competitors. He began his famous research team and laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1875, and in 1880 he electrified Manhattan. Throughout his life, he had a running feud with academic scientists who never found favor with Edison’s methods and concepts.”
Edison in Florida
“His first Florida trip was in 1882 as a vacation for him and a health trip for Mary,” said Havlin. “They spent 6 weeks in the Jacksonville to Daytona region that he referred to as ‘The Jungle,’ falling in love with Florida. They returned in 1884 for Mary’s health, when Edison gained local fame by catching the ‘Demon Shark’ that terrorized area fisherman by using electric rods and frying it! He came back the next year to mourn Mary’s death and take part in his ‘favorite work’ – fishing! That led him to rent a sloop to sail to Punta Rassa that he heard was the best place on Earth to fish for tarpon!”
At that time, Edison was working on various light bulb filaments and one was bamboo and that was another Southwest Florida plus. “He sailed up the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers,” Havlin added, “that was all of 200 people, with a telegraph station, livery stable and drug store, and that was about it! Edison liked what he saw and bought 13 acres on the river from Jack Summerlin, a renowned cattleman. To the few people who lived here, Edison buying land would be the key to the success of Fort Myers, including the belief he would ‘light up’ the Town within two years.”
In 1886, Edison returned on his honeymoon with Mina, who instantly loved Fort Myers. “He began construction of two identical side-by-side homes, one for himself and the other for a good friend, Ezra Gilliland, but they had a falling out in 1889 over business, leading Edison to leave until 1901. By then, Edison was financially stable and would be for life, and he became the central figure in the community. He electrified his home and folks traveled from as far away as Central Florida to witness his lights!”
From then on, Edison’s visits were more frequent. “He loved the fishing,” said Havlin, “and enjoyed steamer trips to the islands, with a lot of camping. He christened their home, ‘The Seminole Lodge,’ and welcomed a steady stream of famous guests, such as Ford, John Burroughs, Harvey Firestone, JH Kellogg, Richard Colgate and Barron Collier; some of whom, like Collier, relocated here as well. Edison soon had a ‘favorite spot’ – his fishing pier that extended 500 feet out into the Caloosahatchee River.”
Ford eventually gave him a Model T that Edison drove everywhere, Havlin related. “He did not like chairs, so Edison had a habit of stretching out on the grass! He enjoyed pets, having a cocker spaniel, peacock, cow, turtle and alligator, among many others. Edison was a strong supporter of the local business community, spreading seed money around to people, and was flabbergasted and appalled by the rapid decline of fish and killing of egrets for their plumes. Edison was the central figure in bringing Spring Training baseball to Fort Myers, through a visit from Connie Mack. Shortly thereafter, the community built Terry Park for the Philadelphia Athletics and teams still train here today. As he aged, he craved privacy, leaving most social obligations to Mina. His fascination the final 7 years of his life was producing synthetic rubber. All total, he spent 77 months in Fort Myers, so a little better than 6 years, leaving for the final time in June 1931 and dying later that year at age 84.”
Edison/Ford Holiday Nights
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates at 2350 McGregor Boulevard include a historical museum and 21-acre botanical garden on the sites of the winter homes of Edison and Ford. During the holidays the estates are decorated with thousands of lights for “Holiday Nights” through Tuesday, December 30, except for Christmas Eve & Day, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Santa & Mrs. Claus visit the Caretaker’s Cottage each Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. The Children’s Tree Trail features over 60 trees with handmade ornaments from Lee County students. “Holiday Nights” is $20 adults, $10 teens, & $2 children 6 to 12. For details, edisonford.org.