According to TripAdvisor.com, it’s the number one must-do attraction in Fort Myers. Each year, more than 225,000 guests from around the world descend on these 20-plus picturesque and peaceful acres along the Caloosahatchee River, making it among the top ten most popular historic home tours in America. Tours are conducted daily (guided or self-guided) 363 days a year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), and are offered in English, Spanish, German and French.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates (EFWE) is rich in the fabric of American lore, a unique setting where two of our nation’s most creative minds and iconic names who were friends and, ultimately, neighbors. It’s also a success story involving the City of Fort Myers, Lee County and the Edison & Ford Winter Estates Foundation and others that — since 1947 when the Edison property was deeded to the city by Mina Edison — have taken the estates from preservation, to progress, to prosperity.
Today, EFWE is embarking on new, more interactive exhibits; a litany of new and exciting programs and events, for kids and adults; and even new marketing strategies and cross-promotions to introduce the attraction to greater audiences.
With this momentum, COASTE decided to get up close and personal with some of the people most responsible for the current success of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, as well as taking it to the next level: Mike Cosden, Chief Curator; Debbie Hughes, Senior Horticulturist; and Janet Wilson, Public Relations & Marketing Director.
Perhaps the most striking impressions of the Estates are the beautiful homes and grounds, as well as the looming banyan tree with Edison’s statue, one of the largest banyans in the continental U.S. canopying almost an acre. But there’s much more to discover upon you visit — about the men, their visions and their passions.
“We’re finding new things to research all the time,” Cosden explains. “We have people reaching out to us to make donations, most recently a vintage Ford car and some Edison legal documents someone found in their attic. Our first initiative was to address the homes, and that’s done. Next was to address the laboratory, and that’s done. Now we’re onto the museum, making things more interactive and providing more opportunities for children to get involved.”
When you dig deeper into the relationship between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, you find that Ford was once an employee of Edison — and later, Edison his greatest mentor. And while Ford focused on perfecting automation via the assembly line, Edison was an inventor with few equals, and held more than 1,000 patents worldwide.
Although he didn’t invent the light bulb, he did invent filament that improved the incandescent bulb. He also invented an improved stock ticker, an improved telephone, the first fluoroscope (yes, he played with x-rays), the first motion picture devices (he actually has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his film production company, Edison Studios, put out more than 1,000 movies), a laundry list of electric lighting system components, the first office dictation device, and improved storage batteries that powered early electric cars (ahead of his time again), which led to the development of today’s alkaline batteries.
But perhaps his most beloved invention was the phonograph. “Edison loved music,” Janet Wilson notes, “but ironically, he was 90% deaf. To hear or feel the music through vibration, he built a wooden box around a phonograph and he’d bite the wood. We have one of those in the museum, and you can see the teeth marks.”
Edison was also convinced that many of the world’s challenges, from manufacturing to medicine, could be solved by the power of plants. In 1927, Edison, Ford and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanical Research Corporation and built the Botanical Laboratory — still in its original setting — one of the highlights of your visit. The lab has been named a National Historic Chemical Landmark, and is one of the few Edison labs in the nation with such an honor. It was here (and his lab in New Jersey) that Thomas Edison and his researchers tested 17,000 plant samples, in search of finding a plant that could produce natural rubber in America, in case of war or crisis.
“There were acres of research plants surrounding the lab,” Debbie Hughes notes. “They dried plants, ground them down and then began chemical tests on them to extract rubber. Edison looked at plants differently from how most of the world does now. He felt that whatever you needed, you could find in nature. We have all kinds of trees from almost every continent, all in the name of research. And that’s unique.”
And when it comes to marketing, there’s something always going on at Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Beyond the numerous daily and weekly tours of the homes and grounds, and numerous special presentations and events, there are the Inventor’s Summer Camps (10 weeks of inventive fun for first-third graders, and fourth-sixth graders); a very active weddings calendar (with complete banquet service); narrated River Cruises that depart the Marina at Edison & Ford; plus a new cross-promotion with Pincher’s at the Marina, whereby your ticket purchase to the Estates nets you a complimentary beverage with your meal at the nearby (strolling distance) restaurant.
The fact is, there’s a reason — make that hundreds of reasons — why Edison & Ford Winter Estates is Fort Myers’ top-rated tourism attraction. There’s literally something for everyone almost every day: history, discovery, engagement, hands-on learning, I-didn’t-know-that facts, wow factors, appreciation of nature, natural beauty — all in all, a fascinating journey through our region’s proud past amid a gorgeous, present-day setting.