Note: We recommend that travelers follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on COVID-19, and check with each mode of transportation and specific venue of interest for current information before traveling. Check edisonfordwinterestates.org/coronavirus-health-precautions-at-edison-ford-what-you-should-know/.
Inventor Thomas Alva Edison and entrepreneur Henry Ford were not only friends but winter neighbors.
During the harsh winter months in the northern United States, they both escaped the cold by wintering in Fort Myers, Florida, in adjacent homes. Their families socialized extensively during their winter stays and what came to be known as the Edison-Ford Winter Estate became a magnet for other captains of industry visiting Florida. It is now open to the public.
Edison bought his property along the Caloosahatchee River in 1885 and built a home the next year. Ford bought the property next door in 1916, which included a 1911 Craftsman-styled bungalow. Edison died in 1931; the estate was donated to the city of Fort Myers in 1947, then opened to the public. The adjacent Ford property was bought and opened to the public in 1990 as part of the complex available for tours.
In the 21st century, the property was transferred to a nonprofit corporation and extensively restored. The entire facility is governed by a board of trustees and has both a professional staff and a large volunteer cadre. It is a National Registered Historic Site, a Florida Historic Landmark and has received numerous awards.
Today, admission to the 20-acre grounds includes access to the combined estate Edison and Ford residences, workshops and buildings, Edison’s extensive botanical garden, a small display of early Ford automobiles, a museum, and a gift and plant shop. The residences and other buildings contain appropriate furnishings, mostly original.
Tours and interpretive programs are available. Visitors can download a free smartphone app for self-guided tours. Garden tours are available by appointment. There is free parking on-site, and the shops can be visited without an admission ticket.
Educational programs, school tours and summer camps are offered, and special events are held throughout the year. The grounds are also available for weddings and corporate functions. The archives and research library are available by appointment.
By car, the estate is near downtown Fort Myers and can be reached from the Route 82 exit of Interstate 75 and via U.S. 41.
By air, the nearest commercial airport is Southwest Florida International (RSW) 17 miles away. Punta Gorda Airport (PGD) is 24 miles distant, and Sarasota-Bradenton International (SRQ) is 80.6 miles distant.
By train, Amtrak serves Tampa, the nearest station at 125 miles away.
The nearest cruise port is Tampa, 113 miles to the north. Miami cruises are 158 miles to the southeast.
Must-Sees and Dos for a Short Trip:
Explore the Edison-Ford Winter Estate and museum. Tickets are available at edisonfordwinterestates.org/visit/tickets-tours/. Plan on at least half a day for a visit.
Explore downtown Fort Myers and vicinity.
Eat at a waterfront restaurant in Fort Myers.
If You Have Several Days:
Take the Florida Seminole Gulf Dinner/Mystery Train 4.2 miles away.
Spend a day or two exploring the arts scene in Sarasota 76 miles north.
Take a day trip to Naples 35.6 miles south.
Explore Everglades National Park 77.7 miles away.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands just offshore offer great beaches, great shell collecting and restaurants galore 22.5 miles away.
Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way:
Wear comfortable shoes and casual clothing. There is no beach or water access, so beachwear is not appropriate.
This Destination at a Glance
Over 50 Advantage: Nostalgic architecture, leisurely walking, automotive history viewed in an idyllic semi-tropical setting.
Mobility Level: Low and accessible except for a few buildings that have stairs leading to them.
When To Go: Year-round. As for most of Florida, May through September are hot and sticky but a bit less crowded. Winters are superb, especially November through March. January can have some cool days.
Where to Stay: Fort Myers abounds with hotel choices at many price ranges.
Special Travel Interests: History, botany.
Jewish Fort Myers
As we toured the Edison-Ford Winter Estate, we were mindful of Henry Ford’s reputation as an antisemite. After the tour, we did some research and found a 2002 Chicago Tribune article (“A Revealing Look at Henry Ford and Anti-Semitism”) by Ron Grossman that detailed some of the inventor’s anti-Jewish views.
Grossman wrote: “Ford, the father of the modern assembly line, was convinced that the Jews were the source of whatever ailed America. He wasn’t alone in the thought. Among his peers, the great business tycoons of the early 20th Century, anti-Semitism was common table talk … berating the Jews was a frequent practice … Edison, who was in a close friendship with the antisemitic industrialist Henry Ford, nevertheless resisted falling into anti-Jewish stereotyping in most instances, although he was not impervious to the widespread exaggerations about Jewish economic power in Europe and was not above indulging in antisemitism in some of his early films.”
Interestingly, the political and religious views of the former residents of the estate are neither mentioned nor denied in the self-guided tour app or the historical site’s website.
While antisemitism can be found in Florida, as well as elsewhere, the anti-Jewish influence of Ford and friends has not had a significant impact on the contemporary region surrounding the estate.
Today the three-county region that includes Fort Myers has a significant Jewish population. The 2019 “American Jewish Year Book” estimated the year-round Jewish population of Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties at approximately 12,000 individuals, with a few thousand more Jews likely as part-time residents. There are 15 Jewish congregations in the area, at least two Jewish humanistic groups and a full variety of Jewish social, cultural and educational organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Lee County in Fort Myers.
The region did not have a significant organized Jewish community until the mid-20th century. Jewish World War II trainees were introduced to the region by several bases in the area, and the Jewish presence in southwest Florida has increased with continued growth and the influx of retirees from the northern United States.
Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.