Chautauqua Institution, Edison Pageant of Light, Edison-Ford Winter Estates, Ella Mae Piper, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Round Table, Glenmont, Lewis Miller, Mina Miller Edison, Page Field, Seminole Lodge, Thomas Edison
In a letter in 1912, Mrs. Thomas Edison wrote angrily about Fort Myers, “This town is rank,” she said. “I feel like putting up a cement wall all about our place…I detest the people down here.”
Tom Smoot, from whose book, The Edisons of Fort Myers: Discoveries of the Heart, this quote is taken, suggests that her mood was dark at the time because “Wild Bill” Towles was bullying the Edisons for money to replace the dying royal palms along McGregor Boulevard.
The image of Mina Edison scowling over the greed of Fort Myers citizens is delightful. Suddenly she steps out the gracious, grandmotherly role we have assigned her into outraged flesh. She is for a moment the bold girl that Thomas fell in love with in the winter of 1885, when she, just back from Paris, floated into his friend Gilliland’s Boston parlor, and with the poise and nonchalance of a queen, gave him her gloved hand. Fashionably and richly attired in bustle and form-fitting bodice, with luxuriant dark hair and dark, warm, intelligent eyes, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
She had him, as they say, at “Hello.”
We have preserved this marvelous girl in the stone figure of a hefty, middle-aged woman seated on a stone bench in the garden center of the Edison-Ford Estate. It is the way we remember her.
The First Lady of Fort Myers
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of one of the most significant environmental books of the 20th century, The Everglades, River of Grass, said of Mrs. Edison: “Her work for Fort Myers ought most certainly to be recognized as one of the most outstanding civic achievements…not just in the material improvements of a city, but in the building up of a most amazing and creative community spirit.”
All accounts of Mina Miller Edison agree that she was a powerful force for change in Fort Myers during the first half of the 20th century. Both in West Orange and in Fort Myers, she was an activist for causes suitable to a Victorian-era lady of society, i.e., the beautification of communities through ladies’ gardening clubs and the improvement of communities through education in the arts and religion, and through healthful recreation. Very properly, horticulture and birds were her twin passions.
But in Fort Myers, Mina dared a bit more. Here, she championed the cause of educating the “colored” children of Lee County. Here, she was an environmentalist, passionate in her defense of natural resources. Here, the stone woman on the bench stands and hands you a petition against wildfires.
It is 1938. Evening. She has organized an ice cream festival as a fundraiser to save the century-old oak in front of the courthouse. Edison’s electric lights, draped through the canopy of the oak, sprinkle her silver hair as she passes out ice cream and cake and petitions, urging public officials to take measures to prevent forest fires, citing the devastation to bird life, and the adverse effect upon climatic conditions.
It is 1937. Night. She is a guest speaker at the dedication ceremony for the new primary school in Dunbar on the other side of the tracks in Fort Myers. She urges the primary-school teachers to teach children to think, “and they will do the rest,” she says. The subversive and dangerous intent of her words are utterly lost, of course, upon her admirers on the other side of the tracks. But her audience that night, and her friend, philanthropist and black-education advocate, Miss Ella Mae Piper—they get it.
We confine this woman in stone, but like Pygmalion, if we look with our hearts, Mina will emerge, the girl that Thomas Edison was so in love with that, in 1885, lost in daydreams of her, he almost walked in front of a streetcar.
Courting her, Tom may, at times, have felt hopelessly stupid and, justifiably, ill-bred. Her father was a millionaire inventor of revolutionary, mechanized farm equipment, and a founder of the educational Chautauqua Institution at Lake Chautauqua in New York state, where the Millers kept a summer home.
Mina Miller was Boston finishing school from her high, creamy forehead to her presumably tiny toes. Tom Edison, on the other hand—all his money and fame as an inventor notwithstanding—was a grade-school dropout, who had had only six months of formal schooling in his life and now was a near-deaf widower with 3 kids. And, at 39, twice her age.
And yet, to his everlasting astonishment, she married him.
Tom’s wedding gift to Mina was a 23-room, Queen Ann Victorian mansion on 13 hilltop acres of exclusive Llewelyn Park, in West Orange, New Jersey. However, instead of honeymooning in Paris, Rome or Vienna, Edison swept Mina off her little feet and set them down, in their expensively soft kid shoes, in the cow-pie-splattered streets of a cattle town in the remote, virtually inaccessible swampland of southwest Florida.
J.D. Blount General Store, Fort Myers, 1886
Mina was too well-bred to show her dismay but, dear Lord, the stench of sewage and rotting hyacinths along the waterfront. Cows stood knee deep in the river and hogs wallowed in the mud at the river’s edge. Flies were everywhere and no wonder. The streets were littered with animal dung.
Mina was a broad-minded young woman, but Indians strolling around with blooded alligator hides and the noise and smoke and whiskey stink wafting from the saloons was a bit much. After 2 days in the flea-ridden Keystone Hotel, Mina assured Tom that she would not mind at all moving into their lodge before it was finished. I love the smell of fresh paint, she insisted.
They returned the following winter, in 1887. Perhaps that year Mina saw her first cattle drive. She is 21. Hearing the bawling of cattle, she darts to the window of her upstairs bedroom in Seminole Lodge and through the limbs of the trees outside, she sees them coming. Cowboys are cracking bullwhips above their horns as the cows come walking and trotting along the sandy trail that runs past the house and on out to the corrals at Punta Rassa. Dear Lord.
In the early years in Fort Myers, Mina was merely trying to survive. Amid all the hammering and sawing of construction and the root digging and earth and manure spreading, the Edisons had to ship in the necessities of civilized life, things such as a piano, strawberries, ice, sailor suits for the boys and medical books for the local doctor, hoping he would read them.
Later, when Mina turned to the little town outside her fence, she may have instigated the Round Table, Fort Myers first civic improvement group, in order merely to make Fort Myers habitable.
Out of Marble
How do we find the flesh and blood woman in the marble effigy? We find her in the musty documents and archives of our history. Imagine her and she comes, stepping down from her private pullman car at the ACL train station in Fort Myers. It is 1937. Mina and her second husband, steel manufacturer, Edward Everett Hughes, have recently returned from a tour of Russia. Mrs. Hughes wears a stylish black hat and coat, holding in her gloved left hand a spray of roses and her cocker spaniel by a leash in her right. She gives the standard answer to the standard News-Press reporter’s question: “We are always happy to be back in Fort Myers.”
In 1938, she rides in the first Edison Pageant of Light Parade, her face turning ghost-like in the popping of flashbulbs as the car glides past the clapping crowd.
In 1940, she stands in the play of flashing light bulbs beside Spencer Tracy at the world premiere of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s, Edison, the Man.
The Last Years
By 1941, Mina has been widowed twice. Her strength is declining, but not in the least her sense of fun. In April 1942, she stands with young soldiers out at Page Field Army Air Base, watching a B-17 take off. Her white shoes are planted firmly, and she holds onto her white hat as the bomber roars past them. A purple orchid, pinned to the bosom of her dress, trembles with the earth-shaking passing of the plane. The ordinance men with her don’t know that she knew Orville Wright, that Charles Lindbergh was an old friend.
After her tour of Page Field, Mrs. Edison picks up soldiers downtown and takes them home with her. She has cards and refreshments waiting for them. Homesick, the boys go with the old lady who reminds them of their grandmothers, not knowing who she is until her driver turns into the famous Edison estate on the river. Nor do they know that the arthritic old hand patting theirs had once been laid shyly into the gentle hand of the man who restored to us our Union, President Ulysses S. Grant.
April 1942. After midnight. Anyone driving along McGregor Boulevard this night, seeing the beam of a flashlight playing over the foliage around the Edison house, might have called the police. But it was only the old lady, Mrs. Edison, touring the property on her first night back that year. Her train had pulled into the ACL station 5 hours late, and she couldn’t wait until morning to see her orchids and smell the orange blossoms. She loved her flowers, not wanting to leave them when she had to go home to Glenmont. “How I wish,” she once said, “I could pick it all up in my arms and carry it with me.”
Mina Miller Edison died on August 24, 1947. Out of a note found in one of her gardening books she rises again as the love of Thomas Edison’s life. “Mina Miller Edison,” he wrote, “is the sweetest little woman who ever bestowed love on a miserable homely good for nothing male.”
Sounds like he was trying to get out of the doghouse for something. Probably for spitting tobacco juice on the floor of the lab instead of into the spittoon. She never could cure him of that.