From Venice, we cruised down to the iconic, congested waters around Fort Meyers. It being Friday and Spring Break season, the traffic was nutty. Our hopes of having lunch in “Cheeseburger Paradise” (Jimmy Buffet) on Cabbage Key were dashed by the shortest finger piers we’ve ever seen. Snazzy power boats surrounded us at the pier, and even though we had called ahead and a slip had been reserved for us, the fact that we always “bow in” (as opposed to “stern in”) rendered disembarking impossible. We gazed at the 6-foot down and 2- foot out jump to that tiny pier and envisioned being younger and more lithe. And then we giggled at the thought of trying to get back ON the boat, and that realization made the decision for us. A lot of boats carry a step stool; finding space to store said step stool is our problem. Sooo, no cheeseburgers for us today. Instead, after vacating the slip we had just pulled into, we snacked on our cheese, summer sausage and PB-stuffed celery as we headed “on down the road again.” Even this disappointment did not mar the gorgeous day!
We arrived at Sanibel Island in much better time than we had calculated, thanks to our aborted lunch plans. Gold loopers Joe and Pat Apicella invited us onto their Mainship 430, Glory Days, for docktails and we enjoyed their stories and advice. Dinner at Gramma Dots at the marina, while highly recommended was unremarkable. Saturday morning we hopped on our new bikes and arrived at Lighthouse Beach around 8:00. Already it was packed with folks shelling, wind surfing, walking their dogs, and jogging. We had read about the “Sanibel Stoop” and observed that many take their shelling seriously! I asked a young woman if she would show me what she had collected in her little zippered bag. She explained, as she identified each treasure, that she had arrived at 5:00 and started searching for shells by flashlight. Remembering the big jar of beautiful shells that we sold in our estate sale last May, I was neither disappointed to be late to the morning search nor wishing to return another morning. But it was so much fun to watch the scene!
After an early lunch, we headed the other way on our bikes to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. We were disappointed that recommendations to allow an hour were not sufficient for our mode of viewing. The shell collections are fabulous but I would have enjoyed learning more about the mollusks that inhabit them. While studying a poster on the anatomy and propulsion of a scallop, I felt sadness for capturing and eating these fabulous creatures, and by our lack of connection to and understanding of our food sources. 😔
The cause for our needing to rush through the shell museum was to catch a naturalist-led tram tour of the “Ding” Darling Nature Refuge, which occupies one-third of the island. (Another one-third of the island is protected from development, in accordance with a very strong resident-steered land use plan). Ding was a cartoonist and a visionary who purchased this protected land in the 1920s. We learned that the white pelican has an average wing span of 9 feet, second only to the condor in the US, and saw a number of them, just before migration time when they head north for the summer. We saw several varieties of herons, anhingas, and egrets (as many as we saw along the rivers, I never knew to look for the elegant “golden slippers” of snowy egrets). In addition, we learned about the important role that mangrove trees play in securing the coasts of Florida; their valuable protection against hurricane winds led to legislation that makes it illegal to remove or even prune a mangrove tree. Having thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon nature lesson, we found ice cream before returning back to the boat, and plans for dinner took a back seat, as the ice cream satiated our appetites.
In the evening, there was a knock on the boat, and there stood Steve from Just Right, a friend and fellow-Hoosier from the Rendezvous and Chattanooga. He and Kathleen (correct—“Steve and Kathleen!”) are here in Sanibel for the night with 5 guests aboard. It turns out that they will be a few days ahead of us as they cross to eastern Florida, but we hope our paths cross again as we head north—they’re lovely people!
The Sunday morning cruise to Fort Meyers was a new experience. Our pier-neighbor warned us that we would be on the “miserable mile,” and while neither Steve nor I understood what he meant, we discovered soon enough. The traffic was indeed MISERABLE! For several miles, within a relatively narrow channel there were at least several dozen boats heading toward us and looking behind, dozens as well, many itching to get around us. We were “waked” numerous times, challenging the enjoyment of my morning coffee routine; and despite extra-careful stowing, the cabin floor was strewn with telltale signs of significant rocking. Finally tucked in at Ft. Meyers Yacht Basin, we were ready to see the city.
Monday was laundry-and-catch-up day and wedding-conference-call-day with Steph and Luke and Luke’s parents Sue and Kieron. During the conference call, a Looper with whom we left Demopolis knocked on our boat, and we arranged to have dinner with him. The afternoon offered time to explore; even though we know cyclists who brave city traffic (aka Boston madness), we felt more comfortable on foot. Historic Fort Meyers has charm with inviting eateries and boutiques in an area of a few square blocks. Come evening we shared a casual al fresco dinner at Ford Garage with Nick from Kaillany, and conversation never veered from looping topics. It was a fun evening.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” -Henry Ford
Tuesday we toured the fascinating Edison-Ford Winter Estates, the main attraction in downtown Fort Meyers and one of the 10 most visited historic home properties in the United States. 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. But further, his doctor had been admonishing him to spend the frigid months of New Jersey in warmer climes for health reasons, and he’d been considering buying a winter home. Earlier that year, his wife Mary had tragically died*, leaving the young father with three children and a loan taken out to cover the cost of her burial. Having sufficiently recovered emotionally and financially by the end of the year, he tracked down the property’s owner and bought the land for a carelessly exorbitant sum. A year later Seminole Lodge was built in the newly incorporated town of Fort Myers, and Thomas Edison and his new bride Mina became some of Florida’s original snowbirds. Mina, being the 20-year-old daughter of Lewis Miller, farm machinery inventor and founder of Chataqua, a life-long learning retreat center on the southern shores of the Lake Erie, was an educated and cultured young woman of means, and evidently was well-prepared for life with men of few words and a profusion of ideas! She had been around famous people all her life and was raised to “take charge” of situations. She became matriarch of both the 23-room Victorian mansion at West Orange, NJ where Edison’s main laboratory was located and, of course, this simpler arts and crafts winter home on 17 acres. Though not an architect, Edison drew up the plans for the home and its adjoining guesthouse. Because Mina donated the property at the end of her life to the city in 1947 on the condition that it become a museum, the property is 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 800 books reside behind glass, and the twin lace-covered beds still stand in Thomas and Mina’s room. It was not long after building before the Edisons were receiving visitors, and by the 1920s they had hosted many of the country’s rich and famous: Charles Lindbergh, the Kelloggs, the Colgates, Herbert Hoover, naturalist John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone. (I can’t help but choke on these sexist “who’s who” lists. Surely strong and savvy women were included among the roles!) Edison did much of his significant work at their winter home, a lifetime accumulation of 1,093 patents from 1869 through his final year, having set a goal of producing a “minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” Of all his inventions, the phonograph remained his favorite, and Steve and I listened to examples of the original tin-foil-wrapped tubes, wax rolls (which went through many iterations), and 1/4” thick records made of a diamond-infused plastic similar to Bakelite. Another frequent guest at Seminole Lodge, of course, was Henry Ford, who was so charmed by Edison’s surroundings that in 1916 he bought the house next door, called the Mangoes. He and Edison had forged a close bond after the two met in Detroit and older inventor encouraged the younger entrepreneur to continue working on his “quadricycle” idea, even though it was derided by the public. Most of us remember Ford’s pivotal development of the assembly line in 1913, but I had forgotten that the Model T which had previously been built in more than 12 hours, suddenly could be assembled in 93 minutes! The Fords’ home has been furnished with period furniture that reflects their tastes, because it was sold to a single family whose home it was for decades until it was purchased for historical restoration, and then, of course, the Fords’ personal furnishings were scattered. In 1927 Ford, Edison, and their friend Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanical Research Corporation and 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. A multitude of latex-producing plants were growing on the property, and they became subject to thousands of tests in their state-of-the-art lab, which still gleams as if newly built. Here the inventors and their staff (called muckers) dried the 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. Out off 17,000 plant samples from around the world, the big discovery at the lab was that the humble goldenrod had the highest percentage of latex content of all. (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 the U.S. Department of Agriculture took it over. (Not long after, synthetic rubber derived from petroleum stormed onto the scene, it being a less intensive process. ) 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. Together the properties make for a meticulous time capsule of the lives of these extraordinary people.
The Estate has done a spectacular job of maintaining not only the buildings but the 21 acres of grounds, which were home to more than 1,700 plants representing more than 400 species from 6 continents before the ravages of Hurricane Irma, but is still is a worthy destination for lovers of horticulture. 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 mango and citrus trees. The Moonlight Garden—full of plants that flower at night—is tucked away behind Edison’s study. The Heritage Garden which once grew vegetables for the Edisons and Fords to eat and to sell to neighbors now produces its bounty for local farmers markets.
The Wizard Invents gallery houses many of 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. Into the Wild covers the escapades of the Vagabonds, the name Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Burroughs gave themselves when they went off on their annual camping adventures between 1914 and 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.** Come June, porch furniture 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.***
Our experience on Wednesday was the consolation for realizing that we have insufficient time to truly immerse ourselves in the mysteries of Everglades National Park. On Wednesday Steve and I embarked on an “Everglades Ecotour Safari.” Whatever. It was recommended in the AAA book, so we rather blindly signed up. It turned out to be a hurry-here-and-there alligator hunt. We started with a boat ride and hunted for dolphins. (We LOVE dolphins! But we’ve seen dozens and dozens from Red Pearl, up close and personal.) Then came the board walk hike through a swamp, which actually was pretty cool, albeit hurried. Next, after scoping out hurricane damaged homes in Everglades City, we ate a seafood lunch, which included a couple of bites of deep fried alligator. (Tastes like chicken. No joke.) Over lunch we conversed with our fellow tour-takers, 1 American from Wyoming, 8 Canadians, and 2 Germans. What fun we had hearing their take on the US political state of affairs! After lunch, we got serious about hunting alligators, all from the van, of course. We sped by slews of them, assured that there were hundreds there. I took his word for it. The day ended with an ear-splitting airboat ride across some lake. In search for more alligators, the most interesting thing we saw was an osprey ripping at a whole fish. Sigh. Not my cup of tea, but the guide worked hard and was well-meaning.
Fort Meyers will be a fun memory—the best, and the not-so-best. Now we prepare already to head across Lake Okeechobee and back north!
* It is thought that Mary Edison probably died from a morphine overdose. “… By 1890, opiates were the main ingredient in everything from teething powders to analgesics for menstrual cramps. Patent medicines – so-called because they often contained secret “patented” ingredients – flooded the market. Some served a useful purpose, but they also became easy methods to get high. One famous product was Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a morphine and alcohol concoction that was marketed to parents of fussy children as a “perfectly harmless and pleasant” way to produce a “natural quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain.” After the civil war, even more potent drugs entered the market, including the opiate heroin (introduced by Bayer around the same time as aspirin) and the stimulant cocaine, which was used in everything from cough syrups to Coca-Cola (despite the company’s stringent denials).
Opium imports hit their peak in the 1890s, right around the rise of the temperance movement, perhaps because of the demonization of alcohol, or perhaps because opiate use was easier to hide. This was the status quo until 1906, when the federal government under Teddy Roosevelt stepped in with its landmark Pure Food and Drug Act, which required any “dangerous” or “addictive” drugs to appear on the label of products….”
-Excerpted from “The Strange History of Opiates” in “The Guardian”
**Fun Fact: The term “pick up truck” comes from the early days of the auto industry. Trucks were often purchased by mail and the new owner would have to go to the local shipping depot at the train station in order to “pick up” his new truck. The first manufactured multipurpose truck came on a Model TT chassis in 1925.
***Text largely excerpted from edisonfordwinterestates.org website