Thomas Edison called the overgrown property his jungle when he laid eyes on it in 1885. It was overgrown with bamboo, a plant Edison was using as filament in his light bulbs. He bought the property along the Caloosahatchee River as a family winter retreat in the remote and dusty farming hamlet of Fort Myers. Yet his original hand drawn plans for the 14 acre estate included a research laboratory, experimental botanic gardens as well as his house.
Thomas and Mina Edison were soul mates. Mina, university educated and the daughter of a successful inventor, caught the eye of Thomas when she was an employee at his Menlo Park, NJ, invention laboratory. When they married in 1886 Thomas Edison was already one of the world’s most famous men. He holds the record for most USA patents in a single lifetime – over 1,000.
Their fascination with plants is a major feature of Seminole Lodge. The gardens include over 1,700 plants covering 400 species including 50 varieties of palms. A banyon tree planted in the 1920s now covers over 3/4th of an acre and is the largest in the United States. Orchids are among the dozens of air plants hanging off giant ficus and palm trees.
Thomas and Mina, along with best friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone – national icons of the automotive age – were all concerned with United States foreign dependence on rubber – sound familiar? From the late 1800s through the 1930s Brazil, British India and Dutch Indonesia controlled the world’s rubber supplies.
Besides creating gardens at Seminole Lodge for their beauty, shade and privacy, they planted hundreds of varieties of the ficus plant whose latex sap was an important component for modern rubber. Thomas even experimented and succeeded in growing a variety of golden rod that would produce copious amounts of latex.
In the 1920s Edison, Firestone and Ford created the Edison Botanical Research Corporation laboratory on the Seminole Lodge estate. Henry Ford had already purchased an adjacent house as one of his winter homes. Thomas died in 1931 shortly before the DuPont Corporation successfully invented synthetic latex, which led to synthetic rubber. DuPont’s success was fortuitous since World War II shut down natural rubber imports. The Edison Botanical Research Corporation laboratory closed in the late 1930s.
Shortly before her death in 1947 Mina sold the estate to the City of Fort Myers for $1.00 with the stipulation it would be preserved and open to the public. Today the Edison and Ford Winter Estates is the leading tourist attraction in Fort Myers. It’s well worth spending hours and returning more than once to enjoy the beautiful gardens, artistic Seminole Lodge and the fascinating museum dedicated to two of America’s genius entrepreneurs – Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
You can read more on Seminole Lodge at Waiting to Invent: Thomas Edison in Florida
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