The Edisons: A Fort Myers Connection
June 12, 2023
By Timothy Snyder, Lead Historian
Thomas and Mina Edison gave the City of Fort Myers an identity that shaped the socio-economic culture of future generations. The Edisons’ presence in Fort Myers inspired the city to improve and grow in a way that would accommodate a new class of citizenry and provide for an expansion of population that continues today. Thomas and Mina’s winter residency paralleled the growth of Fort Myers as it transformed from a back country stopover for cattle drives, into a major global tourist and winter home destination. By 1910, Edison’s impact on Fort Myers’ civic pride grew, culminating in the 1931 celebration of the great inventor’s final birthday, a long-standing tradition that is still observed. Today, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates is the link to 19th century Fort Myers, reminding locals of their heritage, as well as the progress of the City of Palms.
Much to the amazement of residents, Thomas Edison arrived at Punta Rassa, a peninsula located at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River on March 15, 1885. While staying there, he traveled upriver to the small town of Fort Myers to inquire about purchasing land. After depositing $100 on 13 acres along the Caloosahatchee, he signed a contract to provide the remainder and purchased the property for $2,750.
As the Edison estate was being established, the town of Fort Myers was also being established. Perhaps the appearance of Edison helped inspire the residents to act. On August 12, 1885, a town meeting was held, and the residents voted unanimously 45 to 0 to proceed with incorporation. After their wedding on February 24, 1886, the Edisons headed for their new winter estate in Fort Myers, arriving on March 15 and staying until April 26. During their stay the following year, electricity was added. As residents witnessed the electrification of the buildings, the people of this small Southwest Florida town were introduced to the modern world.
The Edisons established a tradition of arriving each winter at the turn of the 20th century, which provoked a sense of pride and ownership in Fort Myers’ residents. The local press often leaked the story of Edison’s arrival in advance, and a crowd usually gathered at the train depot to greet them. During Edison’s 1907 visit, the City voted to install sidewalks, Edison bought a membership to the Fort Myers Yacht and Country Club, they visited the Fort Myers Women’s Club and Mina donated $120 toward the construction of a new library. Thomas Edison offered to plant one mile of royal palm trees along riverside drive; the offer included “the furnishing and planting of hundreds of trees, constructing a protective box around each tree, fertilization and care for one year, and necessary replacements for two years conditioned only on the town’s willingness to care for the trees thereafter” (Smoot pg. 81).
During the first decade of the 1900s, Thomas and Mina’s involvement and influence on local matters began to take off. The town of Fort Myers embraced the most famous inventor of the century, and he became big news on each arrival. An example of the pride and admiration that locals had for the wizard is exemplified by events that took place in town: on March 18, 1909, a grand reception for the inventor was held at the Royal Palm Hotel and then on March 9, 1910, Edison was the guest of honor at the town’s 25th anniversary celebration, which included a parade with floats, automobiles and a cowboy procession.
Not to be outdone, Mina in the same winter held a reception at Seminole Lodge, including a concert in which band members played from the pergola between the two houses. The town also grew in grandeur as exemplified by the 1910 grand opening of the Royal Palm Theater, boasting silent movies followed by live entertainment. The 1915 construction of the Arcade Theater demonstrated the desire for culture and entertainment, quickly becoming a major attraction for locals and visitors alike.
Another step toward modernization was the construction of two schools during 1913 and 1914 and the city’s first hospital was completed in 1916, saving people from being transported to Tampa or Key West for critical care. The hospital was named Lee Memorial and was a two-story structure with four patient rooms, as well as an operating room.
The Edisons explored the South Florida countryside via the Caloosahatchee as well as the local trails, often employing the Menge brothers’ steamboat captains to guide them up and down the river. They ventured all the way to Lake Okeechobee in 1906, and 1912, and went camping in the everglades with the Fords and John Burroughs in 1914. Edison’s attachment to Fort Myers blossomed into civic pride leading into his final decade.
During the roaring 20s, Fort Myers grew exponentially both in population and in property. A toll bridge to Fort Myers Beach was constructed in 1921, connecting the mainland to Estero Island. Motorists were charged 54 cents per crossing. Then, in 1924, a wooden bridge was built across the Caloosahatchee as part of the new Tamiami Trail highway. The bridge not only connected the town to northern destinations but also sparked a local real estate boom.
In 1925, the city expanded its limits to include 15,000 acres – perhaps inspired by a Thomas Edison quote: “there is only one Fort Myers, and 90 million people will find this out.” The years of 1925 and 1926 brought in more than $5 million in building permit revenues as developers began to create communities within the city limits and provided paved roads to support them. During this decade, multi- storied buildings such as the seven-floor annex to the Franklin Arms Hotel and the four-story Knights of Pythias building blossomed in Fort Myers. In February 1928, local residents demonstrated their appreciation for the famed scientist with a grand birthday celebration, held at the pleasure pier downtown. Around 4,000 school students, a live band, and hundreds of other locals attended. Thomas’ 1929 birthday celebration included a parade tour of the town with President elect Herbert Hoover.
Mina Edison’s impact on local society also increased during the decade. Forming the Roundtable organization, Mina helped to coordinate civic groups to work together on the beautification of their town. As President of the Plant Guild, she personally headed the Safety Hill Garden Club division, in which she inspired the community to pave the roads and beautify the landscape throughout their neighborhoods. Mina’s impact on the community was demonstrated by her involvement in the Young Men’s Wesley Bible Class, speaking engagements for the Chamber of Commerce, Girl Scout Troup 2, the Junior High School PTA and the Rotary Club.
The roaring twenties sputtered to an end, but not before the completion of the Tamiami Trail, which connected Tampa to Miami for motorists. This also began a new tradition for the Edisons who would travel to Miami, Everglades City, and Naples in their motor car, chauffeured by Sidney Scarth.
Thomas Edison celebrated his final birthday in Fort Myers during his 1931 visit in grand fashion. The city dedicated its new concrete automobile bridge across the Caloosahatchee to him. What better way than to celebrate the inventor’s birthday than to have him head the opening ceremony of the new bridge. Edison was escorted from Seminole Lodge to the fountain at the intersection of McGregor by 20 high school students where the parade began. The procession ended with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the foot of the bridge. In attendance was Governor Carlton, Mayor Fitch, Harvey Firestone, and the head of the road department.
Mina Edison deeded the Edison estate to the City of Fort Myers on February 18, 1947. Today, the estate remains a link to the past, reminding residents of their heritage and connection to the Edison legacy. That legacy lives on in Fort Myers with the preservation of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.