Phonographs, flowers, antique Fords
If you’re looking for a family friendly place to spend a day, or want to show out-of-town guests a side of Florida away from amusement parks, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates are worth a trip.
On 20 acres along the Caloosahatchee River, you’ll find Thomas Edison’s and Henry Ford’s winter homes, botanical gardens, the Edison Botanic Research Lab, and the Edison Ford Museum. You can meander on your own, take self-guided audio tours or join historian-led tours.
In the botanic laboratory, you can imagine Edison, Ford, and Harvey Firestone of Firestone tire fame discussing the need to find a new source of rubber in case foreign rubber became scarce. The trio was so concerned, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927 and headquartered it on the property.
Under Edison’s leadership, researchers sought a source of rubber that could be grown and produced quickly in the United States. In the long run, they found that Goldenrod was the most suitable. The banyan tree was among more than 17,000 plant samples they tested. One of those trees, planted on the property in 1927, may be one of the largest banyan trees in the continental United States.
The Edison Ford Museum chronicles the lives of Edison, Ford and their families at their winter homes; has displays on Edison’s electric lighting and phonograph inventions, among other breakthroughs; and showcases vintage Ford cars.
For those drawn more to nature, the grounds feature orchids, bougainvillea and other flowering plants, as well as towering bamboos and palms. Moonlight Garden, designed in 1928 by renowned landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, features fragrant white flowers and a small pool, intended to reflect moonlight.
Edison and Ford Winter Estates
Where: 2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers
When: Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cost: adults, $25; ages 13-19, $20; ages 6-12, $15; 5 and under, free. Free parking.
Info: 239-334-7419; EdisonFordWinterEstates.org.
By B.C. Manion
This is an updated and condensed version of a story that was originally published by The Laker/Lutz News on April 29, 2015.
Take a step into Florida’s past at the Gamble Mansion
History and architecture buffs, or just anybody looking for a free outing, might consider making the trek to Gamble Plantation Historic State Park.
The park boasts Gamble Mansion, the oldest building in Manatee County and the only remaining plantation house in South Florida. It’s on 17 acres once part of a thriving sugar plantation owned by Maj. Robert Gamble Jr., who arrived from Tallahassee in 1843.
He was attracted by the area’s mild climate, rich soil and easy access to the Manatee River, but especially by free land, offered by Congress to encourage frontier settlement.
In just two years, his plantation was among a dozen cultivating sugarcane and producing molasses for the New Orleans’ market.
He eventually owned 3,500 acres, including about 1,500 acres producing sugar, limes, lemons, olives, oranges, corn and beans. By 1855, he owned 155 slaves who farmed, cleared fields, cooked and cut wood for fuel at the sugar works.
Although a bachelor, Gamble lived in the 10-room, two-story brick and tabby stone mansion, with thick walls and 18 columns supporting the roof and upper verandas.
But by 1856, hurt by crop losses and declining sugar prices, he sold his estate for $190,000 (nearly $6 million today) and moved back to Tallahassee.
The mansion’s story was far from over. After the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox, the Rebel’s Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, fled Union troops and headed south. According to the park’s website, “it is thought that” he took refuge in the Gamble mansion until he escaped to England.
Park manager Kevin Kiser said the mansion has weathered hurricanes, once stored manure, and was in shambles when the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy bought the property in 1925, revived it and deeded it to the state. Today, it is furnished with pieces typical of plantations from the 1840s to 1860s.
Besides its interesting history, the park offers a pleasant respite, with picnic areas, benches and moss-draped trees.
Gamble Plantation Historic State Park
Where: 3708 U.S. Highway 301, Ellenton
When: 365 days a year; 8 a.m. to sundown
Cost: Free parking and admission to the grounds; mansion tours are $6 for adults, ages 13 and up; $4 for ages 6 to 12; and free for those under age 6.
COVID-19 updated: The plantation mansion and visitor center have reopened. Tours of the mansion are offered on Thursdays through Mondays, at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 p.m. (Be aware, it can get very hot in the mansion in the afternoon, so morning tours are recommended, particularly during the summer.) Masks are optional; social distancing is requested.
Info: 941-723-4536; FloridaStateParks.org
By B.C. Manion
This is an updated and edited version of a story originally published in The Laker/Lutz News on March 20, 2014.
Explore underwater delights at Mote Marine
Of all the wonders at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, kids seem to love watching sharks the most. River otters, baby gators, manatees and sea turtles draw crowds, too.
But the Shark Zone’s 135,000-gallon habitat is the superstar here. Behind the scenes, scientists are researching why sharks and stingrays rarely get cancer, which could lead to new human cancer treatments.
That’s one of the beauties of Mote – it’s a marine laboratory and an aquarium open daily to the public. It’s a big place, divided into two areas across the street from each other, so plan plenty of time, and go on a weekday if you can.
At the Marine Mammal Center across the street from the main aquarium, trainers feed lettuce to manatees at noon daily. It’s fun to watch the cow-like creatures float around munching while we humans photograph them.
A few steps away, sea turtles wade in stone habitats. They were all injured in the wild and brought to Mote for rehabilitation. Around the corner, river otters frolic in a glass-enclosed habitat, swimming underwater for a while, then slithering onto rocks.
In the “Teeth Beneath” exhibit, alligators, caimans (kin to gators), turtles and crocodiles stare back at guests. Upstairs, tanks hold cobalt-blue spotted jellyfish and snook, while displays detail Mote’s coral reef restoration and conservation projects. Behind the scenes, not accessible to the public, are sea turtle, dolphin and whale hospitals.
In the main aquarium, visitors learn about Florida’s coastal and freshwater habitats by looking at displays of living coral, diamondback terrapin, clownfish, lobsters, moon jellyfish and seahorses.
Mote has plans for a $130-million aquarium that broke ground last November on 5 acres south of University Parkway off Interstate 75 in Sarasota. A fundraising effort is underway for the 110,000-square-foot Mote Science Education Aquarium.
The new aquarium will attract visitors to learn about marine life, while current facilities will give Mote more space for research labs.
Until then, visitors can enjoy otters, manatees, turtles and the ever-prowling sharks at Mote’s longtime aquarium.
Mote Marine Laboratories & Aquarium
Where: 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota
When: Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily
Cost: Adults, $24; ages 3 to 12, $18; under 3, free. Tickets must be bought online at Tickets.mote.org. Parking is free.
Info: 941-388-4441, ext. 416; Mote.org
By Karen Haymon-Long
This is an updated and edited version of a story originally published in The Laker/Lutz News on May 2, 2018.
Published August 25, 2021