While rubber helped create these gardens, they aren’t made of rubber. They’re here because of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone hobnobbing over how to find a way to grow a rubber substitute in America.
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Location: Fort Myers
Address: 2350 McGregor Blvd, Fort Myers, FL 33901
Fees: Tours are $30 adults, $25 ages 13-19, $18 ages 6-12
Restroom: adjoining the ticket office
Land manager: City of Fort Myers
Open 9 AM to 5:30 PM daily, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Discount admission for members of AAA, National Trust, Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, and several other history-oriented organizations.
Drive south from downtown Fort Myers on McGregor Blvd to the entrance on the left.
While Thomas Edison is best known as the inventor of the light bulb, you could say he kickstarted the settlement of Fort Myers, too.
Coming here in 1885 and buying prime acreage from the Summerlin family along the Caloosahatchee River, he made the frontier town of Fort Myers his new winter destination, honeymooning here in 1886.
He called their new home Seminole Lodge, and invited friends to escape the winter by joining his family here. In 1916, his friend Henry Ford bought the adjoining property called The Mangoes.
Edison, Ford, and Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927, which collected trees and plants from all over the world. More than 17,000 specimens of nearly 2,200 species were planted here at the estate.
Building a laboratory on his property, Edison’s work drew a national spotlight on Fort Myers as a possible location for rubber production in America.
Edison died in 1931, not long after cutting the ribbon dedicated the new Edison Bridge over the Caloosahatchee River on the young Tamiami Trail.
His wife, Mina, ensured that the “City of Light” had a patron. Born into high ideals for education – her father was a co-founder of the Chautauqua Institute – her philanthropy helped shape Fort Myers into a cultural center in South Florida.
In 1947, she deeded Seminole Lodge, the laboratory, and the gardens to the city, knowing it would continue to draw visitors through the ages.
In 1988, the city was able to purchase Henry Ford’s adjoining estate and combine them into one compelling destination for garden lovers and history buffs.
Touring the Gardens
While the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 thinned out the heritage gardens significantly, they are still a pleasure to explore. Newer plantings have replaced those that were lost, but some original plants remain.
Visitors can walk the paths at their leisure, but it is well worth joining a formal tour with a docent when they are offered. Tour groups meet adjacent to the ticket booth.
The Banyan Tree
Before you even enter the complex, the massive banyan tree that largely shades the parking area will attract your attention and awe.
In 1925, Firestone obtained this tree in Calcutta as a gift for Edison. At the time, it was four feet high and two inches in diameter. Nearly a century later, it is thought to be the largest banyan in the United States.
A forest in itself, it shades more than an acre of ground. Prop roots create a virtual maze beneath it. Fittingly, a statue of Edison is displayed near its base.
Engaging the services of landscape architects, Edison ensured a sense of order in the gardens surrounding Seminole Lodge.
Designed by 1929 by Ellen Biddle Shipman, the Moonlight Garden centers around a reflection pool. Fragrant night-bloomers made this a special spot for Edison and his wife in the cool of winter evenings.
Nearby is an in-ground swimming pool built in 1910 and remodeled in 1928. Fed by a cistern and located close to the river, it is surrounded by tropical plantings.
A collection of palm species forms a palmetum on the estate grounds, complemented by an extensive cycad collection.
Other younger formal gardens include a Butterfly Garden, a Succulent Garden and a Heritage Garden featuring Florida-fresh vegetables and herbs.
If you walk with a guide who knows their botanicals, they will point out some of the odd specimens found here. In addition to rubber substitutes, Edison had a special interest in poisonous trees.
While there are many tropical fruit trees throughout the estate, this is not a place to nibble on a downed fruit. The ackee apple, for instance, while eaten in Jamaica, is toxic if unripe.
Dense clusters of bamboo are scattered across the lawns. Edison collected bamboo species from around the world to experiment with their fibers for the filaments in light bulbs.
Edison’s wife Mina loved orchids and bromeliads, so they are both in the trees and in their own greenhouses.
Royal palms line the walkways between the Edison home and the river. When Seminole Lodge was first built, the family and their guests always arrived by boat.
The Avenue of Palms
McGregor Boulevard has long been known as the Avenue of Palms, and we can thank Thomas Edison for that.
From Central Florida, cattle drives went right through town and down the river to the port at Punta Rassa, where cattle would be shipped to Cuba. The route they took is what became McGregor Boulevard.
Edison paid laborers to dig up royal palms from the Big Cypress Swamp and plant them along the boulevard for beautification.
As part of the tour, visitors walk around the perimeter porches of Seminole Lodge and peer inside. The family furnishings and decor remain just as they were when the Edisons lived here.
The home incorporates concepts that predated air conditioning, such as broad porches, high windows that could open to welcome the breeze off the river, and covered breezeways.
Connected by a walkway, the adjoining guest home was where friends of the Edisons would stay. A unique sight on the back side of the house is the “Friendship Walk,” where guests left their greetings in stone.
The Caretaker’s Home was the original Summerlin home from 1885, where cattle drovers would stop on their way to Punta Rassa.
Henry Ford’s bungalow, The Mangoes, sits south of the Seminole Lodge complex. It is a Craftsman home with a brick fireplace and a rich wooden interior, evoking a hunting lodge.
It, too, is adjoined by a caretaker’s residence, where you’ll find a couple of period-appropriate Fords in the garage.
Once you cross back over to the east side of McGregor Boulevard, the tour continues into Edison’s on-site laboratory. It’s here that he was cooking up alternatives to rubber for his industrialist friends.
He eventually discovered a type of goldenrod that seemed a good candidate, and was experimenting with it when he died in 1931.
The Edison Botanic Research Laboratory is a period piece, left as if the workers had just stepped out for a lunch break. It is also Florida’s only National Historic Chemical Landmark.
From the laboratory, you walk right into the big museum complex. It’s here you’ll find examples of all of Edison’s inventions, from the light bulb to an early movie projector and the phonograph.
Since the exhibit space flows through a series of galleries that cover more than 15,000 square feet, there are in-depth sections on different aspects of Edison’s life and work.
The Timeline of Innovation is fascinating, especially if you have a relative who has lived through much of the progression of change in technology over the last century.
One gallery focuses on the outdoors. Edison and his friends are are shown heading into Florida’s wilds by car and camping out in the Everglades.
Kids have a place in which to innovate in the Smithsonian Spark Lab. Rotating exhibits are showcased in the Caretaker’s Gallery, generally focusing on the history of science and invention in America.
See our photos of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Walk along a blackwater stream that sluggishly seeps towards the Caloosahatchee River on the way to a panorama of pines and palmettos along Hickey Creek
Providing a rare peek into unspoiled upland and floodplain habitats along the Caloosahatchee River, Caloosahatchee Regional Park evokes the wilderness in which the Calusa lived
Winding 1.4 miles through the slough, the broad wheelchair-accessible boardwalk at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers leads you into a dark cypress strand