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How Locals Explore Southwest Florida's Rich Culture and Past

Sponsored by The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

Sep 18, 2020

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Edison and Ford Winter Estates

Edison and Ford Winter Estates

What historic and artistic experiences does The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel have to offer? We asked the people who live there.

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Question: What do the Calusa Indians and Thomas Edison have in common? They were all one-time residents of the area around Fort Myers and Sanibel in Southwest Florida. Tracing the history makes for a fascinating visit, and it’s truly like stepping into the past. Add to that the amazing artistic treasures that pepper the landscape, and you’ll find this to be an area full of inspiration. To discover ideal ways to explore the bygone days and art around The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, we asked three locals about their favorite historic and cultural experiences there. Here’s what they had to say.

Two Places That Stoke Wonder

The Edison and Ford Winter Estates, the former homes of automotive legend Henry Ford and American inventor Thomas Edison, may be the region’s most famous destination for history, says Glenn Miller, President of the Fort Myers Historical Society, but it’s also a place where he finds inspiration. That feeling begins even before you arrive, he says, as you drive down historic McGregor Blvd., dramatically lined with royal palm trees. Then delve in and see where the famed carmaker and one of history’s most prolific inventors spent their winters. You can even check out the lab where Edison turned his ideas into innovation. “I don’t even have a scientific bent,” says Miller, “and I still find it an extraordinary experience.” When the two called this place their home, says Miller, the population of Fort Myers was just 350 people, yet these two icons spent winters here fishing and watching baseball games, which many travelers still enjoy. “Visiting the estates helps remind me why I love it here so much,” he says.

Miller also finds inspiration in another place Edison used to visit, the Florida Repertory Theatre. “The Rep,” as locals call it, is one of America’s best theater companies for professional drama, comedies, and musicals. And it’s located in the historic Arcade Theatre in downtown Fort Myers, which dates to 1917. You’ll always see a professional, first-rate show, but Miller says the most exciting moment comes as you enter the building. You walk down a long hall, go up a steep slope and then walk into the dramatic space that seats 800 people—Miller calls it a “magical moment” that always awes him. (It’s temporarily closed, but for now you can check out their Stage@Home virtual series.)

The Mound House Museum

Three Spots Where the Past Comes to Life

“It’s a real eye-opener,” said Miller of the short (0.9 miles) but powerful Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center on Pine Island. “You’re up on a Calusa Indian shell mound overlooking the Pine Island Sound. It’s not only beautiful, but you start to get a sense of what this area was like when Europeans first arrived,” he said, thanks to interpretive signs on what life was like for the Calusa Indians. He likes that the island doesn’t have any high-rise buildings, making it easier to imagine the area in its pristine state. Plus, as it’s not near any highways, Miller also loves it for being what he calls “a therapeutic sanctuary” that’s still easy to access.

Another place that transports you into the world of the Calusas is Mound House, says Tom Hall, public art consultant for the City of Fort Myers and an arts and culture blogger. It’s built on a 2000-year-old Calusa Indian shell mound, and you can see its striations; “It’s like you’re looking directly at what this land used to be like,” says Miller, so you truly feel a connection with the past. Plus, the site has lots of Indian artifacts, and there’s a mural depicting what daily life was like for the Calusas. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. You can also tour the grounds around the house, which include native plants and explanations on how the Indians used them. “When you can witness history like this,” says Miller, “It makes your connection to this area that much deeper.”

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Like Key West or Provincetown, “Captiva is the end of the road,” says Kristie Anders of Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, and Captiva Island offers opportunities to meander that are also adventurous trips back through time. It’s just a few blocks from bay to beach, but she loves that in this compact space you can see buildings from 100 years ago, back when riding the mailboat was the only way to get out here. This “quirky and quaint” town has a chapel that used to be a school, a small cemetery, and outdoor dining options. (Follow the walking tour from the Captiva Island Historical Society to hit the highlights.) Anders particularly loves the historical interactive exhibit in the small public library. “It’s as if you’ve walked on to that mailboat,” she says, making you feel like you’re experiencing a different era on this gorgeous island.

The Caloosahatchee Manuscripts Light Sculpture at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center

Two Dazzling Works of Art

“It’s all about the ‘wow factor,’” says Hall about the Caloosahatchee Manuscripts Light Sculpture at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. “And who doesn’t like seeing a light show playing across beautiful old buildings?” This awe-inspiring work consists of dual bronze drums carved with letters; when lit up inside, they project text all over the neoclassic revival Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, one of Southwest Florida’s preeminent cultural centers. It doesn’t matter what age you are, says Hall. When the lights come on, everyone stares in wonder at the words as they revolve among walls, steps, columns, sidewalks, and cars. Hall loves coming for the center’s art exhibits, film festivals, and other shows, but is always amazed by the lights. “It’s truly an artistic, uplifting experience,” he says, “that takes you out of your everyday existence and makes you feel proud to live in a town that puts such importance on a grand piece of public art.”

Another immersive experience that Hall recommends is “Fort Myers: An Alternative History”—a 100’x20’ mural on the east wall of the federal courthouse. The artist, Barbara Jo Revelle, scoured local archives to find photographs from 1850–1904 that would help bring the mural to life. “It’s a huge piece of art that evokes a sense of wonder,” describes Hall. Despite its size, though, it’s something of a secret, as it’s tucked away in a plaza. “That’s also part of the appeal,” the art expert says. The mural tells some fascinating stories; for example, that there was indeed a fort in Fort Myers, and that this area was an outpost during the Civil War. “It shows how we have come together as a community,” says Hall, “and that the city has long been a center of diversity and inclusion. It makes me feel proud.”

Whether you live here or are just visiting for a few days, that same gratifying feeling can be found through the area’s many rich historic and cultural experiences, making this stretch of Southwest Florida so rewarding to explore.

We all have different feelings about traveling right now. When you’re ready, we hope you feel safe, inspired, and excited to join us on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

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