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Sunday Favorites: the Man Behind the Genius

The Edison winter estate is located in Fort Myers.

FORT MYERS -- Thomas Edison and his 13-year-old son Charles went tarpon fishing one day in 1905 when the genius inventor caught what he thought was a fine-looking fish. However, at 20 pounds it paled in comparison to the one caught by his boy, a monster specimen that weighed five times more than his father's catch. Charles Edison had hauled in 100 pounds of Gulf Coast tarpon the same day.


The elder Edison wanted to throw his fish back, dismayed by what he felt was an insufficient result. But instead, Charles jokingly told his father they should go ahead and keep and mount both of their catches, so they would always remember the only time that the son would ever top the father's accomplishments. 


Both fish are still displayed on the porch of Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, a tourist attraction that also includes the seasonal homes of Edison and his good friend Henry Ford.  


The fishing story was one of the most interesting bits of information, in my opinion, mentioned on a guided tour I took around the grounds last weekend. 



Thomas Edison and Henry Ford sit on a dock on the bay.

Photo: Florida Memory Project 

The story most importantly gave me a sense of Edison the man, as opposed to the public figure, who is held in highest regard for the 1,093 patents (a record that still stands to this day) he contributed during his lifetime. Among them were the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and the movie camera. 


The tour was about halfway over when the guide told the fishing story and I was hoping to hear a little more information that put Edison’s family life into perspective. But instead, we heard more about the flora and fauna of the 25-acre property. 


I heard how Edison first visited Fort Myers in the spring of 1885, eager to find a warm retreat away from the harsh winters of his New Jersey home base. Instead of the bustling cities like Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Edison preferred the quaintness of a cattle town, and purchased 13 acres in Fort Myers. 


However, I wondered about the Thomas Edison pictured sleeping in the grass in several photographs, of the man who was married twice, who loved Florida and most importantly, loved to fish. 



Thomas Edison, naturalist John Burroughs and Henry Ford on a camping trip.

Photo: Florida Memory Project 

I wondered about the man that ate only puréed spinach and milk every day, about the man who spent every birthday with Henry Ford, about the man who let his son mock his own success and failures, and gladly mounted a lesser fish to display it in the home he loved so much.


The tour, although informative, didn’t provide me exactly what I was looking for. Instead I had to seek other sources that better displayed the day to day lives of the Edisons in Fort Myers, a city they apparently loved whole-heartedly.


A museum on the grounds gave a bit of a more personal picture of Edison the man. In addition to displaying many of Edison’s inventions, there is also an exhibit of photos of Edison’s family and personal items, including his old tackle box, are available for guests to view. 


One of the picture captions said when Edison wanted to zone out, he would often “pretend to fish,” or sit on the dock with a pole and line in the water, but refraining from putting any bait on the hook, so that no bite would disturb his thoughts.


But it was a book by former real estate attorney Fred Smoot titled "The Edisons of Fort Myers" that really got to the heart of what I was looking for. Smoot quotes a local news reporter that said, 


“Both Edison and Ford can handle rods and reels as well as any amateurs that ever wet a line.”


Edison was extremely close with his circle of friends. They camped together, fished together and also worked together. Much of Edison’s later years were spent on the development of a rubber-producing crop with the help of Ford and Harvey Firestone. Their research would eventually prove obsolete due to the invention of synthetics. 


However, one small gift is now a highlight of the Edison Ford property. Firestone gave Edison a small rubber-producing specimen known as a banyan tree in 1925; it was four feet tall. Edison gladly planted it near his laboratory at the back of the property. Today it is the second largest Banyan in the world and takes up over an acre of the property. 


Smoot also addresses Edison’s relationship with his second wife, Mina Edison, who described her husband as a man of “strong likes and dislikes, but upon the customs of people not the people themselves.”


The Banyan tree was originally a gift from Harvey Firestone.

The woman who captured Edison’s heart with the way she played the piano viewed him as romantic and sentimental, a man who detested disorder but who also craved happiness and cheerfulness in his everyday life. Much of that was provided by his children, Madeleine, Charles and Theodore. 


While informative and beautiful, the tour wasn't what I thought it would be. Instead, it was Smoot's book that really portrayed the inventor in an intimate light. It is my hope that the guides at Edison will one day read the book to make the tour a little more personal.


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