Imagine a group of people moving to Florida and looking for a place to live that offered alternative social and ideological differences. They were searching to find and join others who were set apart from everyday society. They wanted to remove themselves from all that they found evil or objectionable.
This really did happen, and probably not when you think. Welcome to Estero, Florida, between Fort Myers and Naples, in 1894. Dr Cyrus Teed, a physician from Chicago, brought his followers to form a settlement. They called themselves the Koreshan Unity.
The Koreshan Unity Settlement was founded upon the beliefs of Dr Teed’s ideas of communal living and property. He grounded them in religious and scientific theories, including the communistic goal of everyone working for the good of all. It was to be Utopia, the “New Jerusalem,” a life without crime, tobacco, drugs, or sex. Those who joined were promised security, order, and a sense of achievement. His beliefs, which his followers echoed, included the premise that the earth was hollow, filled with gases. He expected his city of New Jerusalem to exceed ten million residents, and even had a design for it.
There were two ways for new believers to join. Buying shares brought you into the cooperative order. Those lacking the financial means could work in the Koreshan Unity industries. Education was an important part of the Koreshan beliefs and schooling was provided to all members of the settlement. Mornings were spent in learning the three R’s, and vocational education continued in the afternoon.
Jobs in the settlement included working in the bakery, sewing, machine and print shops, boat works, sawmill, agriculture, construction, concrete works, post office, and store.
The settlement grew. At one time, they had up to three hundred followers. They operated a store selling their goods. The bakery alone could produce three to four hundred loaves a bread a day. Homes were built, and the gardens produced all the food the community required. Excess was sold through the store.
Dr Teed died in 1908. His followers awaited his resurrection. When he was finally laid to rest, a vehicle was left near his grave to aid in his return to the settlement. Many of his followers became disraught when he failed to return, and left the community. Many years later, his aboveground crypt washed out to sea in a terrible hurricane.
Even without their charismatic leader, the settlement lasted until 1961. The final members chose to give it to the state as a reminder of their Utopian dream. It became Koreshan State Park, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The Koreshans’ home is now a Florida State Park. The original gate is still visible from US 1 in Estero. The park offers, camping, access to the Estero River for paddling, a nature trail through a bamboo forest, and a walk through the historic settlement grounds.
Along with formal botanical gardens along the river, nearly a dozen original buildings dating back to 1882 are there for you to explore. As you walk the grounds, browse the interpretive markers to learn what life was like for the hearty Koreshan followers who called it home for nearly eighty years.