Home Away from Home

Take a trip to Seminole Lodge, Thomas Edison’s Florida retreat.

By Sarah Reisert | July 19, 2016
Edison Innovation Foundation

Edison and Ford Winter Estates
Fort Myers, FL

In 1885 Thomas Edison was fishing out on Florida’s Caloosahatchee River when he noticed several varieties of bamboo growing along the shore. Of even greater importance was a “for sale” sign posted nearby. Edison was working on electric light bulbs, and he thought bamboo might serve as filaments in the bulbs. He’d also been considering buying a winter home to take him away from the frigid New Jersey winters. Quickly tracking down the property’s owner, he bought the land for a carelessly exorbitant sum. A year later Seminole Lodge was built in the newly incorporated town of Fort Myers.

Though not an architect, Edison drew up the plans for the home and its adjoining guesthouse, and soon he and his new wife, Mina, were hosting visitors. By the 1920s the Edisons had hosted many of the country’s rich and famous: Charles Lindbergh, the Kelloggs, the Colgates, Herbert Hoover, naturalist John Burroughs, Harvey Firestone. Even the Philadelphia Athletics, who came to town each year for spring training, paid a visit. Edison offered cigars to all the baseball players, who tucked the gifts neatly in their pockets. Turning to manager Connie Mack, Edison asked, “Why is no one smoking with me?” Mack replied that it would be foolish to burn such a wonderful souvenir. Edison fetched a second round of cigars, which were quickly lit.

Another guest was Henry Ford, who was so charmed by Edison’s surroundings that in 1916 he bought the house next door, called the Mangoes. Not long after, Ford, Edison, and their friend Firestone built a lab on Edison’s property to study latex-producing plants. World War I had jeopardized the country’s access to rubber, giving latex immense strategic and monetary value. Soon all kinds of latex-producing plants were growing on the property, and they became subject to thousands of tests in the beautifully appointed lab. In 2014 the lab became the first site in Florida designated by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Seminole Lodge, the Mangoes, and the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory make up the heart of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. Mina Edison donated the property to the city in 1947 on the condition that it become a museum; so it’s relatively unchanged since the Edisons’ time. The house was built to take advantage of the river breezes, with full-length doors on every side that are thrown open to allow visitors a good look at the rooms over neatly labeled glass dividers. All the furniture is original: early electric-light chandeliers hang from the ceilings; gramophones sit on desks. Edison’s books hide behind glass, and the twin lace-covered beds still stand in Thomas and Mina’s room. The Mangoes was purchased by the city in 1988, and together the two properties make for a meticulous time capsule of the lives of these extraordinary people.

The lab, in the same impeccable condition as the homes, gleams as if newly built. Here the inventors and their staff dried latex-bearing plants and ground them into powder. Equipment on several tables outfitted with water, gas, and electricity (both DC and AC—Edison couldn’t hold out forever against AC) was used to determine the latex content of the samples. The distillation apparatus then extracted latex from the plant material and purified and recycled the solvents. The big discovery at the lab? Out of the more than 17,000 plant samples from around the world, the humble goldenrod had the highest percentage of latex content. (A variety that was created at the lab and produces even more latex is named in Edison’s honor, Solidago edisoniana.) The project continued for five years after Edison’s death before being transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Estates has done a spectacular job of maintaining not only the buildings but the 21 acres of grounds, which are home to more than 1,700 plants representing more than 400 species from 6 continents. Even if you cared not a whit for Edison or Ford, this is a worthy destination if you love horticulture. Naturally, there are latex-producing plants, figs and banyans among them (including the largest banyan in the contiguous United States). There is also quite a collection of citrus trees, some of which I’d never heard of. (I imagine the limequats, a key lime-kumquat hybrid, would make for an interesting variation on Florida’s official state dessert, the key-lime pie.) The Moonlight Garden—full of plants that flower at night—is tucked away behind Edison’s study. The Heritage Garden once grew vegetables for the Edisons and Fords to eat and to sell to neighbors. That tradition is maintained today: the bounty is now sold at local farmers’ markets.

The Wizard Invents gallery houses many Edison inventions: the phonograph, the kinetoscope (an early motion picture–viewing device), an updated telegraph, and an impressive display of light bulbs. There’s also Edison’s improved stock ticker, his first lucrative invention: Edison’s device could be synchronized with all the other stock tickers on a telegraph line, eliminating the need for employees to monitor and reset them if they fell out of unison. Also on display is the electric pen, which—after failing in its original task of duplicating handwritten documents—had a much more successful second life as the tattoo machine we know today. Edison after Forty, an exhibition on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, looks at the second half of the inventor’s life, when he hoped to recapture and ultimately surpass the creativity he’d enjoyed in his earlier years (with a little help from his shiny new lab in Fort Myers). When your goal is to increase productivity 10-fold, and when you’re starting with the productivity of Thomas Edison, you’re setting yourself up for failure—especially when a new wife, new children, and the increased demands of fame are added in.

A favorite exhibition was Into the Wild, which covers the escapades of the Vagabonds, the name Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Burroughs gave themselves when they went off on their camping adventures from 1914 to 1924. What started as small camping trips grew into weeks-long excursions that included family, household staff, professional chefs, and on two occasions sitting presidents of the United States. There were dining tents and a kitchen car specially equipped with a built-in gas stove and refrigerator. Edison rigged up lights for the campsites; guests participated in tree-cutting or sprinting contests. Reporters and photographers covered the exploits like some kind of “glamping” reality show, and their stories played a major role in popularizing recreational camping.

The museum has significantly more material about Edison than Ford. In fairness Ford moved in 30 years after Edison and stayed for shorter periods. The museum does house a gleaming 1937 Ford flathead V-8 engine, along with a history of the Ford Motor Company. In the same room I was excited to see a display of Edison’s infamous talking dolls. A spectacular failure when Edison introduced them in 1890, the dolls made the news again in 2015 when digitized versions of their wax-cylinder voices were released. I can confirm that their charming exteriors belie their creepy voices.

Historian-led tours of the property go out each hour. There’s also a self-guided audio tour (complete with an orientation every 15 minutes to get you started). Depending on the day, behind-the-scenes tours of the lab, gardens, and houses are offered. Each morning the estates’ horticulturist answers plant-related questions. Weather permitting, daily boat tours on the Caloosahatchee offer the chance of seeing manatees.

During hurricane season the property is in a state of constant readiness. Come June, the porch furniture of both houses is moved into the garage at the Mangoes, and significant pieces of furniture, such as Mina Edison’s beloved piano, are transferred to safer locations. It’s a wise move considering that the property has been hit by a dozen hurricanes since Edison’s arrival in 1886; hurricanes have destroyed the property’s boathouse, dock (twice), and electric-powered pleasure boat. The office even carries brochures on hurricane preparedness for visitors who are rethinking their own readiness in the face of the Estates’ precautions. But such preparedness does not detract from the experience at all: I barely noticed amid the flowering plants and waving palms. Strolling through the grounds and buildings, I was transported far into the past.