Happy Birthday, Mina Edison!
July 5, 2022
By Alexandria Edwards, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator
On July 6, Edison and Ford Winter Estates will remember Thomas Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller, a remarkable pioneer woman who dedicated numerous hours to improving communities throughout the United States. Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1865, Mina was the seventh of eleven children and the daughter of Lewis Miller and Mary Valinda Alexander. Her parents ensured that all their children were exposed to and appreciated the values of education and culture, which influenced Mina’s career and how she raised her children. Mina was very inspired by her father’s efforts to improve education in both public and church schools while developing a reaper with a moveable cutting bar that revolutionized agriculture.
In 1883, Mina graduated with distinction from Akron High School. At the graduation ceremony, she delivered an essay titled “Among the Foundations,” a reference to the fundamentals of a good life. After high school, Mina took a grand tour of Europe where she gained a worldly education that benefited her immensely. She completed the remainder of her schooling at Miss Abby H. Johnson’s Home and Day School for Young Ladies in Boston and excelled in musical studies and classics.
Around the same time, Thomas Edison was a world-famous inventor with 500 United States patents to his name. The inventor decided to travel to Florida to help regain his health and explored Fort Myers with his best friend and business partner, Ezra Gilliland. After a few days, Edison visited the town’s first realtor and found a 13-acre property for sale by cattleman, Samuel Summerlin, which he bought for $2,750. In the summer of 1885, Edison and Gilliland fine-tuned their plans while Edison stayed at Woodland Villa – Gilliland’s cottage in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
When they were not working, Gilliland and his wife, Lillian acted as matchmakers for Thomas Edison, who had become a recent widow. The family hosted weekend dinners and Edison was often the guest of honor. They introduced him to several suitable young women and one of them was 19-year-old Mina Miller. Edison was immediately smitten, noting her beautiful olive complexion, dark flowing hair, and deep, dreamy eyes. When asked about how she felt about Mr. Edison at the time, Mina replied that he was “just a genial, lovely man.”
After Mina went back to Boston with her family, Edison and Gilliland continued to order supplies for their Fort Myers estate; however, Edison continued to write about Mina in his diary and commented one day, “Saw a lady who looked like Mina. Got thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a street car. If Mina interferes much more will have to take out an accident policy.” Edison and his daughter, Marion, arranged a visit to see Mina at Chautauqua, a Methodist retreat and educational center founded by Lewis Miller. Shortly after, Edison invited Mina to go for a trip to Alexandria Bay in upstate New York, followed by the White Mountains of New Hampshire, chaperoned by Marion and the Gilliland family.
Edison was mostly deaf, so he taught Mina Morse Code, which also allowed them to communicate privately. During the trip, he tapped out a proposal of marriage on Mina’s palm, and she tapped back “yes” – with the provision that her father approved. Edison wrote to Mr. Miller and won his approval. They set a date for the wedding on February 24, 1886, just a year after they met. The wedding took place at Oak Place – the Miller home in Akron, Ohio. There were approximately 80 guests in attendance, including the immediate family and friends of the bride and the groom.
Four days after their wedding, Thomas and Mina Edison traveled to Jacksonville and spent part of their honeymoon at the St. James Hotel. They continued to travel further south toward Fort Myers and stayed at the Keystone Hotel since Edison’s Fort Myers estate was not yet complete. Once they settled, they went off to inspect their new home. The 60-foot path suggested by the local press was not completed, and Mina remembered traveling down the rough path with her feet dangling from a donkey cart. The homes were complete in 1886, and Mina named the estate “Seminole Lodge” to honor the native Seminole people.
Once they moved in, Mina assumed the role of stepmother to Edison’s children: Marion, William, and Thomas, Jr.; and later raising three more children she had with Thomas: Charles, Madeleine and Theodore. She took on the responsibility of managing the two large homes that were each well-staffed with caretakers while Edison focused on his research, earning herself the title of “home executive.”
While managing the homes, Mina also associated herself with many activities outside of the home, dedicating lots of time to a variety of organizations and causes in West Orange, New Jersey; Chautauqua, New York; and Fort Myers, Florida. Chautauqua was one of her first loves since she spent almost every summer there since childhood and served as the president of the institution’s Bird and Tree Club. The club’s activities provided an important forum for conservationists throughout the United States. Mina often worked tirelessly to arrange the best speakers for the Chautauqua forum, including Jay “Ding” Darling, a renowned cartoonist and conservationist. Mina invited “Ding” Darling to speak before club audiences, but he was also instrumental in helping her find other experts in the field. Mina personally paid for all or part of the expenses of visiting speakers rather than deplete the club’s treasury. Until her death, Mina was a trustee of the Chautauqua Institution. Today, an important wildlife preserve on Sanibel Island is named for “Ding” Darling.
Additionally, she was instrumental in organizing the West Orange Community League, which still serves the recreational and cultural needs of West Orange. Mina served as the institution’s second president from 1912 to 1919. During the great depression in the 1930s, the philanthropist was a “Committee of One” for the Welfare League to study how unemployment affected the League’s twenty-seven hospitals and allied agencies. At the same time, her healthful habits and activities prompted her to become an active participant and financial contributor to the National Recreation Association. Other organizations that Mina became an ardent supporter of and spokesperson for are the American Red Cross, the National Audubon Society, the John Burroughs Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution (where she served as its national chaplain for a year), and the School Garden Association of America.
In Fort Myers, Mina Edison founded the organization known as the Roundtable, composed of members of the combined civic clubs of the town and served as the first President. The first meeting occurred at Seminole Lodge, and Mina urged that the group concentrate on specific beautification projects that involved improving roads and gardens throughout the city. Through the efforts of the Round Table, replacement palms were planted along First Street and McGregor Boulevard. In 1929, Mina participated in the delivery of gift baskets to the needy during the only Christmas that Thomas and Mina spent in Fort Myers. Of particular interest to Mina was cooperation from community members of all backgrounds, including members of the population that beautified the school grounds and other areas in Dunbar. To support the Dunbar community, Mina also became president of the Safety Hill Garden Group and took part in a ceremony to plant trees at Dunbar High School in May of 1933.
Mina’s passion for gardening did not end with beautification projects; however, she wanted to teach those around her proper gardening techniques and introduced a wide variety of gorgeous botanicals to her Fort Myers’ estate. In 1928, she founded Fort Myers’ first community garden group, the Periwinkle Garden Club. This Garden club was a branch of the Women’s Community Club, which contained several sub-organizations that focused on music, fine art, house and garden. The garden branches of the Women’s Community Club were formed according to streets and districts, so the ladies who lived along First Street decided to call themselves the “Periwinkles,” inspiring the club’s name. As a part of this organization, Mina produced several flower shows in locations such as Mrs. A.G. Rhea’s garage and the American Legion Home – formerly the Elk’s Club. Today, Edison and Ford Winter Estates is a member of the Periwinkle Garden Club and hosts many gardening events in Mina’s honor.
Throughout the 1930s, Mina maintained a hefty schedule during the winters she spent in Fort Myers, serving as a leader in the National Plant, Flower and Fruit Guild; the Valinda Literary Circle; and the local music club. She was also the class mother for the Young Men’s Wesley Bible Class and recruited Harvey Firestone to attend a session with her. Her work spread throughout the community, and she was invited to speak on beautification and education by other organizations as well, including the Girl Scouts, Rotary Club, Fort Myers Women’s Club, and the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
After Thomas Edison passed away, Mina Edison was looking for ways to honor her husband’s legacy in the City of Fort Myers. In 1946, Mina served as honorary chairperson of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation which may have prompted her to begin thinking of a proper way to memorialize her husband. She considered a university or library but decided to deed their winter home to the city for $1 in February of 1947, with the promise that the city would continue to develop educational programs for future generations. Three months after she deeded Seminole Lodge to Fort Myers, Mina passed away, leaving a legacy of community activism, kindness and generosity.
Today, visitors will learn more about Mina Edison during tours of Edison and Ford Winter Estates, gardening classes, and programs held throughout the year. We hope that Mina Edison’s work will inspire you to make a positive change in your community!