The Industrial Age

We decided to get a slip at the Ft. Myers City Yacht Basin so we could fuel up, pump out, do laundry, provision, and generally take it easy in a slip for a couple of days before heading across the Okeechobee Waterway to the Atlantic side of Florida. What we found in Ft. Myers made us decide to be tourists for awhile, and we ended up staying a week. The downtown area in Ft. Myers is great. It’s been revitalized with shops and restaurants and parks, which are all easily accessible by foot if you happen to be on a boat in the marina. Not only that, but Ft. Myers has a history that I’m sure few people are aware of.

We pulled in on Sunday afternoon after leaving Captiva. We tied up in our slip and got settled in. Then, as I later walked down our dock, I discovered not four boats from us a Watkins 36CC named Hawk’s Nest. Madge is a Watkins 36AC, meaning “aft cockpit,” which means the pilot station is at the back of the boat. The CC designation stands for “center cockpit,” which means the pilot station in near the middle (lengthwise) of the boat. Watkins boats are rare. I had only seen one other, and it was just a 27-footer. I had a long conversation with Bruce, Hawk’s Nest’s owner, and it was amazing how similar our experiences with our boats were, in spite of the different deck configuration. We toured the boat, and shared lots of information about upgrades we had done, or plan to do. There is a cluster of Watkins owners around the Chesapeake, so I hope to possibly connect with some of them this summer. In addition to the boat info, Bruce shared that there are a lot of musicians among the boaters in the yacht basin, and they usually take over the “open mike” night at a local club each Monday evening. Of course, that meant we had to go, and we met a bunch of talented, and very nice folks, from our marina.

The Edison estate in Ft. Myers.

The Edison estate in Ft. Myers.

Now, here’s the thing I didn’t know about Ft. Myers: it was the winter home of both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Edison got there first in the late 1800s and built a large home with associated labs, workshops and botanical gardens. Before 1900, Henry Ford worked for Edison before finally striking out on his own to try his hand at automobiles; however, Edison remained a mentor for Ford, and was a frequent visitor to the Edison home in Ft. Myers. When the owner of the land next door to the Edison estate decided to sell his property, he offered it to Ford first, knowing of the connection, and Ford built a home there. Suzy and I spent the better part of a day touring the estates, and were amazed to learn, or recall, the tremendous impacts both men had on the way that we live our lives today. The estates are immaculately restored and maintained, and a must see for any visit to Ft. Myers.

Edison's state of the art lab for trying to extract latex from a wide variety of natural plants.

Edison’s state of the art rubber research lab.

Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, rubber had become a major and necessary component of many industrial items. Think insulation for electrical wires (Edison) and tires for automobiles (Ford). Edison realized that latex, the raw material for rubber, was only available from foreign monopolies, and US industries were vulnerable to embargoes and highly volatile price swings. So, along with Harvey Firestone, Edison and Ford established a private research lab in Ft. Myers looking for native plants yielding high amounts of quality latex. After testing thousands of plants, which were cultivated in Edison’s gardens, they eventually discovered that common ragweed fit the bill as a substitute for the rubber plant. They then proceeded to breed new varieties of ragweed for maximum latex yield. They eventually turned the lab and its discoveries over to the US Agriculture Department for final development, thereby insuring that in the two World Wars the US would have a steady supply of rubber.

Statue of Edison, Ford and Firestone

Statue of Edison, Ford and Firestone

Both Edison and Ford were heroes to my grandfather. Grandad was a railroad mechanic, tinkerer and would-be inventor. I know he held at least one patent. He was what we would call today an “early adopter” of technical innovations. He had a recording phonograph in the 1930s with which he recorded the sounds of events when my mother was a teenager. He always had the latest in home radio and film technology. He would have loved to see what we saw at the Edison and Ford estates, and I couldn’t help but think of him often during the day. Suzy and I examined every exhibit in the estate museum, until the staff had to run us out at closing time. We were tired, but had a wonderful time.

While in Ft. Myers we met up with some old friends from SV Island Moon, whom we had met years ago in Georgetown, SC. They had since moved to the Ft. Myers area, so we got together for a long lunch and longer conversations. In the course of the conversation, we mentioned that we had spent time with the Dubhes. They recognized Dubhe’s name from a painting in the home of one of their Georgetown neighbors. Seems the neighbor had owned Dubhe in the 1990s, but the wife sold the boat after her husband died. That next owner later sold the boat to our friends Nancy and Perry. Island Moon contacted the former neighbor (still living), and after a few multi-stage emails, we helped get the old and current boat owners connected. They plan to meet in person soon.

What an amazing, and apparently very small and interconnected community we have fallen into on the water.