While on our Florida vacation my super amazing girlfriend and I took the trip down to Fort Myers to visit the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. The two industrialists were classic snowbirds, and sensibly made the trip down to Florida to escape the harsh and grueling winters of Michigan and New Jersey, which is a notion I fully support. Since they were such buxom friends they got estates right next to each other so they could hang out and stuff. I went there once when I was a kid and I mostly remembered a very large banyan tree which I admired. I am happy to report the banyan tree is still there, still large, and that I still admire it!
When you arrive, the Estates have two major parts. The first is the museum which tells the overall history of both Edison and Ford (with more emphasis on Edison). It’s got a variety of artifacts and man if you are into gramophones it is the place to go. This side was originally also a botanical research center from when Edison was trying to figure out a new source of rubber that didn’t involve the Amazon. I like that they keep the theme growing by selling plants, including fruit trees and a variety of decorative plants. This side also has the laboratory where they analyzed plants for their ability to produce latex. Across the street are the estates themselves, with the preserved buildings you can peer into.
We started with the museum and I think overall it is pretty okay. Like I just said I think it winds up more skewed towards Edison, but that actually makes sense with the site. Although Ford gets top billing in the name of the site, it was Edison that moved down here first with Ford buying his neighbor’s estate when the neighbor moved out. Edison also had a whole research facility here, so it’s mostly actually the Edison estate with Ford the next-door neighbor. They have a lot of artifacts, including many dynamos, many more gramophones, and a number of cars. They got a whole display too about Edison’s fishing hobby, and in three different locations around the site they tell the same fish story about him catching a small tarpon.
The biggest weakness of the museum is that I don’t think they put a lot of effort into contextualizing the men. The most glaring omission, based on my knowledge of the men, is any discussion that I could find about Ford’s rampant anti-Semitism. My super amazing girlfriend spotted that they did sell the book Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate in the gift shop, so that’s something I guess. In one of the kitchens in the houses, the site is also eager to talk about Queenie Adams, the Edison’s long-time cook. I didn’t know these people, but the site is eager to make her and the Edisons sound like dear friends. Mrs. Edison chartered a Pullman car to take her home when she was dying, which isn’t nothing, but this sounds like a relationship ripe for a historical re-evaluation. Being more critical in analyzing these men would vastly improve the site.
The estates themselves though I gotta say are pretty darn beautiful. Edison picked a good spot. They are right on the water and the grounds are planted with fruit trees and other plants. I really wanted to take a mango. Edison had a “Moonlight Garden” designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman which was gorgeous, and there was a pond next to the swimming pool that was being admired by a family of ducks while we were there. They had a riverside walk that was lovely to stroll by. The houses themselves were also pretty great, large but much smaller than mansions and Edison’s especially felt airy and comfortable and we were peering in from the porch. I would have very much enjoyed hanging out in the library overlooking the river through the coconut trees, I think.
One of the funnier bits too was the orange grove planted over on the Ford Estate. Back when Ford was in residence there as a large citrus grove, and in recent years they have planted a new grove to represent the old one. The trees are still small but are interspersed with signs sponsored by Florida Juice that are downright bombastic about Florida Oranges. They really want you to know how juicy Florida oranges are. How juicy? Really juicy. Not like those California oranges, no. It would take way more than 1.7 California oranges to make a glass of orange juice. Pretty, despite the bombast, and since my dearest dream perhaps is to have a grove of tropical fruit trees it inspired both admiration and jealousy.
Our tour was briefly interrupted by a thunderstorm which forced us to seek shelter in the next-door restaurant. We consoled ourselves with oysters, crab Rangoon, and sangria. We were back at it though soon enough and got to admire the rest of the grounds at our leisure. Even if it could use a bit (a lot) more contextualizing of both Ford and Edison instead of just hagiography, the estates are lovely and an interesting place to read about turn of the century invention and industrialization and also fish stories. I’m excited to install a riverwalk and fruit tree grove whenever I get around to having an estate.