Holiday Lights On Holiday Nights: A Visit To The Edison/Ford Estates

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[The Banyan tree with a bronze of Edison standing guard]

We arrived about thirty-five minutes before sunset.  Heading for the admission window, we passed the largest Banyan tree in Florida.  There was a family on the path in front of us.  I heard the mother:

“Isn’t that amazing that this is one tree?”

“Not really,” said the sulky teenage daughter.

Teenagers…

We walked past the tree and I nearly stumbled over four people.  My attention was directed at this tree, this 3/4 acre tree, this alien-like plant that looked like it came from a moon that orbits a planet we haven’t found yet, this wonder of God and Nature.  It’s hard to put words on paper that would accurately describe the feeling I had when I looked at this tree.  The longer I stared, the more I saw…and felt.  If the Nymphs, the Dryads, or the Lauma live, they live in the Banyan.  To say that it “blew me away” sounds trite and immature.

And, the Banyan trees walk!

We’re down to nine days before we depart Fort Myers.

“Let’s go see the Holiday Nights at the Edison/Ford estates,” I said to Mariam.

“Ok.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and other extremely wealthy shakers and movers of industry, had winter homes here in Fort Myers.  These estates have been lovingly and intelligently restored and it is possible to stroll among the gardens and pools and ‘cottages’ that spoke of a time in the past when a heated swimming pool was a rarity.

Me&Mina

[Mina Edison and me.]

Henry Ford made cars, in case you haven’t heard.  I drive a red Ford.  Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  But he was also intrigued by botany.  He planted the Banyan tree in 1927 as an experiment.  He was looking for a material that could be a cheaper method to produce rubber.  No wonder Ford and Firestone wanted to hang out with the guy.

ClusterFigTree

[A Cluster Fig]

We walked the paths and poked our heads into the dining rooms, libraries, kitchens and pantries of the Ford and Edison homes.

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I bought two “Welcome To Florida” postcards, done in the old style of the 1940’s.

We left the parking lot and drove down McGregor Boulevard, keeping an eye out for a nice restaurant.  I thought about the teenage girl and wonder if anything she had seen that night impressed her.

Maybe the 1,200+ patents that these two men held?  Maybe the thousands of lights on the palm trees?  Maybe the museum with a working model of a Model T (or was it an A)?  Maybe the dolls that were on display in one of the family rooms?

Maybe nothing impressed her.

Me, I pushed the button on the radio of my Ford Escape and began to listen to my favorite country music station.

We were just approaching the restaurant on McGregor when I heard another memorable song:

“Prop me up beside the juke box if I die.”

This guy’s main concern about death was that he had a stiff (no pun intended) drink in his hand and was left against a juke box.

Now, that was impressive.

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[Photo:Edison/Ford Estates Website]

 

Crossing Whiskey Creek To The Banyan Tree

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I had my plastic cup of iced coffee from the Java Cafe nestled nicely in the container holder next to the gear shift knob on the red Ford Escape.  This time I was going to try something different.  I was going to locate and take the rear entrance (or is an exit when you’re leaving?) of the Outlet Mall.

Soon I was on McGregor Blvd and listening to the country radio station.  The song was “Shall I Go Home or Shall I Go Crazy?”  Apparently the singer had some serious issues with his girl friend at home.  I wonder how things turned out for him.

I worry about people.

But this was not a day to just drive around Fort Myers looking for a Starbucks (remember I already had a coffee).  No, I had a destination.  I was going to Fort Myers Cemetery to visit the grave of Edgar “Bloody” Watson.  You may wonder what is drawing me to see this alleged murderers burial plot.  Well, I’m reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.  It is over 900 pages of a fictional treatment of the “Legend of Chokoloskee”.  Watson was an interesting character but there is a fog of doubt about who he really was and what he really did.

Details?  You can Google Watson if you’re desperate, but I would suggest waiting for my blog on him and…well, it’ll be far more entertaining and fascinating than the Wikipedia entry.  Or, go buy the book by Matthiessen.  But don’t expect to rejoin the family and the real world until sometime after Easter.  It’s a serious read.  Trust me.

So, I was driving north on McGregor, passing the walled enclaves of the moderately rich people.  The really wealthy folks are about thirty miles south, in Naples.  There is a small bridge ahead.  I’m passing an Irish Pub on the right.  I’m crossing Whiskey Creek.  I had just read an advertisement about the Whiskey Creek Country Club.  Membership?  For a single golfer for one season, the fee is just shy of $1,500.  If I had that kind of money to spare, I’d join just so I could carry a card that had that name on it.

Whiskey Creek.  It begs to be a metaphor.

“I overturned the kayak of my life and I swam in Whiskey River for too many years.”

I think I have the beginning of a country song.  Or, maybe a dark Irish short story of misspent youth.  I don’t know a thing about writing country songs, but I’m Irish and I over spent my allowance of my younger years.

I make a few turns before I find Michigan Ave.  Another two miles and I’m turning into the cemetery.  The old headstones, from the early 1900’s are mostly under oak trees that are draped with Spanish Moss.  Nothing makes a southern cemetery more spooky and sad and lonely than Spanish Moss.  It’s the essence of southern gothic.

There is a fellow riding around on a backhoe.  I stop him and ask where “Bloody” Watson’s grave is located.  He says he’s only been there a week and doesn’t know where anything would be.  I troll the narrow drives.  Acorns pop under my tires.  Just because I felt like it, I make a left turn.  There is a large gray stone: WATSON.  I get out and walk around the car.  There is Edgar’s stone.  Someone had placed an old penny on top.  I thought it was a strange thing to leave at the grave of a guy with the nickname of “Bloody”, but, hey, I was here.

As I was driving back to Michigan Ave. a pickup truck blocked my way.  On the door was City of Fort Myers.  A cemetery worker, a genial black man with salt and pepper hair got out.  He knew where Watson was buried, but I told him I already found it.  It didn’t matter to him–he wanted to talk.  Fifteen minutes later, he points to the beads of sweat on his forehead and says: “It’s too hot out here for me.  I’m going back to the AC in the truck.  Good luck.”

He told me a great deal about his life in those fifteen minutes.  I should have been expecting it.  After all, he spends his working day in a field of dead people.  Who do you talk to?

Just before he slammed his door, he called out: “Did you see the Banyan tree?”  I said that I did, which wasn’t a lie.  I just didn’t know what the tree was when I first saw it.  I drove back to it to get a photo.  I stood looking at a tree that I thought was really five trees.  You wouldn’t believe the size of this enormous plant!  A person could live inside it’s base. I found out later that it was the “sister tree” to the one on the Edison and Ford estates.  It seems that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were good friends and each had a very large home in Fort Myers.  The two historic houses are side by side.  Edison planted the first Banyan tree in America on his property.  Ford thought it would be a cheaper way to produce rubber for tires.  They planted the tree as an experiment.  It was only four feet tall.  Today, the one tree covers an entire acre.

I need to see this tree.

In Hindu myth, the god Shiva (in the incarnation of Dakshinamurthy) is always depicted sitting quietly beneath a Banyan tree.  The confusing tangle of its extended root system are thought to be symbolic of eternity.  It just keeps growing.

The afternoon sun was getting intense.  I decided to drive back to the Siesta Bay Resort and take a swim.  It was 89 F.

It’s December 2.  What else could you do on this winter day?

It was a good day.  The grave of an alleged killer, a gentleman who dug graves on hot days and a mind numbing tree the size of Rhode Island.  It was only 2:49 pm.  I had plenty of time.  Perhaps I’d find the public library where I could write and post this blog.

But first, I had to cross Whiskey Creek again.

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[The Banyan Tree at the Edison House. Source: Google search]