Berne Barfield Davis
February 1, 2022
By Alexandria Edwards, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator
Berne Davis (Barfield) was an influential philanthropist with deep roots in the City of Fort Myers who developed a very close friendship with Mina Edison throughout her time in Southwest Florida. She was born in West Lake (Hamilton County), Florida and moved to Fort Myers in 1928. She graduated from Fort Myers High School in 1933 and later attended the Fort Myers Business College. After college, she got a job working as a secretary with William Reynolds Real Estate.
On July 26, 1938, she married Sidney Davis, a local businessman who started his career in banking and was the owner of Sidney Davis Men’s shop in Downtown, Fort Myers. Sidney valued giving back to the community, which inspired Berne to dedicate her life to charity, and she encouraged others to do so as well. She developed a passion for gardening and dedicated a lot time to beautifying the areas around her, just as Mina did. She was asked to join the Periwinkle Garden Club, one of Fort Myers’ oldest garden clubs, formed as a subset of the Women’s Community Club.
During this time, Mrs. Thomas Edison also was a member of the club and helped produce several flower shows for Fort Myers residents. The group urged City officials to form a Park Board that kept the streets clean, added landscape to the Downtown Library, designed a Friendship Garden at Lee Memorial Hospital, and completed a children’s playground at Rutenberg Park in 1995. Through her efforts, Berne was later selected President of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs from 1973 to 1975. Not only did she help improve gardens around the city, but she tended to her own garden at home as well. Some of her favorite plants included orange jasmine trees, bromeliads, and orchids. According to the Fort Myers News-Press, Berne stated in an interview that “I take a cup of coffee and walk out here every day, you never know what you’re going to find. It’s always a surprise.”
The avid gardener bonded with Mina Edison over their love of flowers and gardening. Mrs. Edison initially met Berne’s husband, Sidney, when he invited her to be a guest speaker at his Sunday school class at the First Methodist Church of Fort Myers. They became good friends, and she often invited him to lunch. When he married Berne, Mina immediately included her in her social circle. The local press shared that Mrs. Davis was very nervous when she met Mrs. Edison for the first time at a dinner in 1938. When Berne walked in, Mina held out her arms and stated, “I am so glad to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you,” which warmed Berne’s heart, and she expressed to others around her how wonderful Mina was.
Sidney and Berne Davis lived at the Seville Apartments, one block north of Seminole Lodge – the Edison’s winter home. According to Mrs. Davis, shortly after she married Sidney, she prepared and hosted a dinner party for Mrs. Edison, her sister Grace Hitchcock, her brother John Miller, Jettie Burroughs, and her sister Mona Fisher. Each guest brought her flowers and climbed up to the third floor of the apartment, eager to see the wedding gifts the couple received. She also enjoyed dinners at Seminole Lodge, where they were greeted by the Edison’s chauffeur, Sidney Scarth, who escorted them to the guest house where everyone dined. Reportedly, Sidney would leave the party after everyone arrived to greet Mrs. Edison and would take her to the guest house from their main house living quarters. If there were any musicians in the group, they were asked to perform after dinner. Mina Edison and the community looked for ways to honor Thomas Edison’s legacy after he passed away in 1931. In 1938, Ronald Halgrim, a personal friend of the inventor, proposed that the City organize an elaborate tribute to celebrate Thomas Edison’s birthday on February 11. The Fort Myers Women’s Community Club joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a three-day pageant dedicated to the famous inventor. As a part of the festivities, many events were held, including a parade and Coronation Ball, still enjoyed by community members today. At the dance, a King and Queen were selected to serve as the reigning monarchs of the Edison Pageant mythical kingdom for one year. Berne was crowned the second queen of Edisonia in 1939, beginning her long-time association with the Edison Pagent of Light. Each King and Queen were crowned by Mrs. Edison in the first year and most consecutive years from 1938 until 1947, when she passed away.
Pageant events were put on hold during World War II, resuming after a five-year hiatus. When Berne was chosen as queen, Mina hugged her warmly and invited her to dinner. Her future husband, Sidney, served as Lord Chamberlin of the Court and had the honor of placing the crown on her head. In 1989, a new non-profit organization, the Edison Pageant of Light, Inc., was created to organize these programs. This year, the Coronation Ball will be held on February 5. For more information about the Edison Pageant of Light, Inc., visit edisonfestival.org.
After Sidney passed away in 1989, Berne continued to dedicate countless hours to serving her community. She provided an endowment for landscape design and horticulture at Florida Gulf Coast University to support students in this program. In addition, in 2007, she pledged $1 million to Florida Arts, Inc. to restore the 1933 United States post office designed by architect Nat Gailard Walker, who also helped design some of the structures on Edison’s property. In honor of her contribution, the building was renamed the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center. For more information, visit sbdac.com.
The gardener and community volunteer was also very passionate about preserving the Edison and Ford Winter Estates and helping the organization fulfill its mission to educate the public by preserving the innovations, legacies, artifacts, gardens, homes, and other structures of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. One of the beloved spots on the property that she enjoyed was the Moonlight Garden. This beautiful garden features night-blooming plants and a pond that reflects the moonlight.
Enjoyed by many of the local garden clubs that Mina Edison invited to Seminole Lodge In the early 2000s, efforts were made to add more plants to the garden that were present in 1929, the period of interpretation at Edison Ford, with the help of Naples landscape architect Ellin Goetz. Berne provided an initial grant to help support the project and rallied local garden clubs to come together for this special cause, including the Jasmine Garden Club that also donated. Not only did she help restore the gardens; however, she assisted with the restoration of the Edison’s family living area and Caretaker’s Lodge, stating “This belongs to all of us. This was a great part of my husband’s life, and I fall into his footsteps.” Due to her selflessness, she was presented with the Alliance of the Arts “Angel of the Arts Award,” Gulfshore Life’s “Philanthropist of the Year Award,” and the “Woman of the Year Award.”
Today, we still rely on donations, sponsorships, and the support of our members to preserve the homes and gardens, and develop new educational programs and exhibits. The Edison Ford Preservation Fund helps enable us to fulfill our mission. We also have a fund dedicated to the gardens, so we can continue to carry on Mina Edison’s legacy of protecting plants and natural resources to benefit the community. To donate to any of these funds, please click here.