By Jeff & Stephanie Sylva
Did you know that some of America’s most well-known industrial giants were Florida snowbirds? Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were next-door neighbors in Fort Meyers, Florida. And just 75 miles north, circus magnate John Ringling made his winter home and his complete circus’ winter respite in the Gulf Coast city of Sarasota.
The estates and museums, gardens, and performing arts centers comprise lasting legacies for these Gilded Age entrepreneurs. And although they’re referred to as Winter Estates, they are open daily all year.
THOMAS EDISON & HENRY FORD
In 1885, Thomas Edison bought a piece of land along the Caloosahatchee River’s shores in Fort Myers. One year later, he and his bride, Mina, honeymooned there. It is believed Edison was attracted to this parcel because of the bamboo growing there. Edison had been experimenting with bamboo for light bulb filaments.
The house designed by Edison would become known as Seminole Lodge, after the local Native American tribe. Many friends and famous visitors dined with the Edisons, including President-elect Herbert Hoover, the Colgate and Kellogg families, and even the Athletics baseball team. John Burroughs, noted naturalist and conservationist, and Harvey Firestone of the prestigious tire and rubber company were frequent guests. Another well-known visitor was Henry Ford, who was so enamored of the location he purchased the adjoining estate, The Mangoes, two years after his first visit.
HOMES, MUSEUMS & LABS
There is much to see as you tour the homes of Edison and Ford. The Edison guest house; two caretaker’s houses; Edison’s study and Moonlight Garden; a concrete swimming pool and adjoining tea house; a botanic research lab; a 15,000-square-foot museum full of inventions, artifacts, a theater, the interactive Smithsonian Spark! Lab (currently closed due to the pandemic); and 20 acres of botanic gardens. Take a self-guided audio tour or guided tour. Get a more up-close peek into the homes and their owners with an Inside-the-Homes Tour, an Inside-the-Lab Tour, or a horticulturist-guided Garden Tour.
Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Burroughs were avid explorers and enjoyed camping in the wilderness, particularly in the Everglades. They relished the opportunities to relax, hunt, and fish. But they also sought to collect plant samples to be used in their rubber research. The quest for natural rubber was Edison’s last major research project. Edison, Ford, and Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation and constructed a laboratory at the Edison Estate. The lab has been restored to look exactly the way it did in its last year of 1936. In 2014, The American Chemical Society designated it a National Historical Chemical Landmark.
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates has earned the National Stewardship Award from the National Trust for Historical Preservation, is on the National Register of Historic Sites, and is an official project of “Save America’s Treasures.”
You don’t have to be a circus fan to enjoy The Ringling—the museums, gardens, and palatial home of John and Mable Ringling. This extravagant legacy of the Ringlings includes the Ringling Museum of Art; the Circus Museum; the Historic Asolo Theater; Ca’d’Zan, the Ringling’s magnificent home; and the beautiful Bayfront Gardens.
In 1925, circus impresario John Ringling built an art museum, both as a legacy meant to outlast his business interests and as a memorial to his wife Mable and himself. The Museum of Art is a pink, Renaissance-style palace with 21 galleries enclosing a sculpture-adorned courtyard. Paired perfectly with the style of the Museum, the Courtyard embodies the ideals of the Renaissance garden. Its long loggias flank a central courtyard that features an impressive group of early 20th-century bronze and stone casts of famous Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque sculptures, among them, at its heart, Michelangelo’s David from Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
Viewing the unique collection of “The Greatest Show on Earth” memorabilia at The Circus Museum will spark fond memories of circuses past. See the parade wagons, the posters, the glittering costumes, and the cannon that shot daring performers through the air. Admire the Wisconsin, the railroad car on which John and Mable Ringling traveled across the country looking for feature acts.
Marvel at the fascinating 3,800 square foot Howard Bros. Circus Model, a re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Howard Tibbals, a man who fell in love with the circus as a boy and dedicated his life, handcrafted every one of the over 44,000 pieces in this exceptionally detailed model and recreated it in miniature.It is difficult to determine which is more impressive - the fantastic details and workmanship of the circus-in-miniature or the incredible organization and effort that the circus had to perform, setting up each day and night barnstorming tour around the country as depicted by the model. Also, be sure to watch the film The Life and Times of John and Mable Ringling, narrated by Hal Holbrook.
The Ringlings had been traveling throughout Europe for nearly 25 years, acquiring circus acts and art. They both admired the architectural style of Venice. When they decided to build a home in Sarasota, Florida, the Venetian Gothic-style of the palazzos that ring the Venice canals inspired them. Following Mable’s detailed instructions, construction crews built the 36,000 square-foot palatial bayfront home that was to be called Ca’ d’Zan, (House of John), in the dialect of their beloved Venice to honor its owner. Guided and self-guided tours of the mansion are available.
Take the time to explore the beautiful 66-acre Bayfront Gardens either on your own or with a guide. Ninety-minute Garden Tours are available on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays and can be booked 30 days in advance. Admire Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden; stroll in the shade of the majestic Banyan trees and along the Bayfront Promenade and Millennium Tree Trail; visit the Secret Garden, the last resting place of Mable, John and John’s sister, Ida Ringling. Info: ringling.org.