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SLIDESHOW — Fathers of invention

The winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford have become popular tourist attractions in Southwest Florida.

It is a warm afternoon and people are milling about in Mina Edison’s garden, wandering through Thomas Edison’s laboratory, visiting the onsite museum and touring the custom built homes at the Edison and Ford Winter Estate in Fort Myers, Fla. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were two of the most creative inventors in history, but it’s doubtful that either one of them ever imagined that their winter homes would one day become a tourist attraction.

Thomas Edison built his winter home in southwest Florida in 1885. Edison wintered in Florida for many years and his good friend, Henry Ford visited on many occasions. In 1916, Ford bought the house next door, so he could more easily vacation with Thomas Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison was the 20th century’s most prolific inventor, so it’s little wonder that before his 40th birthday he was showing signs of burnout. At the age of 38, his doctor advised him to seek out a warmer climate during the winter months to help preserve his health. On Edison’s first visit to Florida in 1885, he purchased a large estate along the shores of the Caloosahatchee River on which to build his vacation home. The property has stunning views of the water, but the real attraction for Edison was the large stand of bamboo that was growing on the land. At the time, Edison was using carbonized bamboo as a filament for the electric light bulb and he needed a good supply. He may have been building a vacation property, but he had no intention of sitting back and taking it easy.

When Edison designed his home, he also built an onsite laboratory to aid him in continuing his experimental research. During his winters in Florida, he continued to invent and experiment and by the end of his life he had 1093 US patents in his name and operated several companies including the General Electric Co., a successful business that is still in operation today.

Touring the Edison and Ford Winter Estates opens a window into the lives of two of the most fascinating men in history. With more than 20 acres of botanical gardens, it is also a wonderful outing for those interested in gardening and botany. Owned by two creative inventors, it is not surprising that the Edison and Ford estates were an ever-changing experimental botanical garden. There are more than 1700 plants on the estates including what is believed to be the largest banyan tree in the continental United States.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford changed the world through their inventions. Though they were more than 15 years apart in age, they were kindred spirits and dear friends. They were also celebrities in their time with an income substantial enough to allow them to be amongst America’s first snowbirds.

If you go:

• The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are located in Fort Myers, Florida. The site is open daily from 9 to 5 p.m. and it will take several hours to tour the homes and the experimental botanical gardens. A Complete Estates Tour will cost US$20 per adult and $11 for children aged six to 12. The tour includes a guided orientation, an audio tour of the estates and admission to the laboratory and museum. On Saturday mornings, there is a special hands-on young inventor’s tour for $11. For more information, visit www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.

• For more information about visiting this region of Florida, check out Lee County’s official tourism website at www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.

Did you know?

• Thomas Edison had 1093 U.S. patents to his name at his passing in 1931 at the age of 81. Though he did not actually invent the light bulb, he did manage to create a long-lasting practical bulb that was commercially viable. He also invented the phonograph and the motion picture camera and developed the first industrial research laboratory.

• Edison only received three months of formal schooling and his teacher is said to have described him as “addled.” After three months, his mother removed him from the formal school setting and educated him at home.

• Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He developed and manufactured the first automobile that middle class North Americans could afford to buy. He is credited with developing the assembly line and mass production technique.

• Ford was an engineer at the Edison illuminating Co. and Edison encouraged him in his private experimentation with automobiles. They later became good friends.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

 
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