I’ve visited the Koreshan State Historic Site several times and have actually put in an application to be a resident tour guide here but they have a waiting list a mile long their volunteer coordinator tells me. I find its story fascinating and have written previous blog posts about it. This is not going to be one of the most informative because I feel like I’ve told the story many times.
In the far left of this map is the campground. Every day I walk from there over to the trail that goes along the river and takes me to the Historic Area. It’s the dotted line by the river. There is actually a loop you can take to and from the settlement.
This is the path I walked to the Farmer’s Market and took to both of the tours I took. It really is a lovely walk. The foliage is not quite as thick as it once was due to the hurricane damage but in a year or two I doubt it will be obvious especially since some of it is bamboo given to the Koreshans by Thomas Edison who came here for the arts programs.
All of the tours begin here, in the Arts Building although I would highly recommend that when you visit you come at least 45 minutes before the tour you are going to take and go straight to the “founders house” sometimes known as the main building which is the middle of the grounds, beyond the Arts Building. A picture of it will be further down in this post.
There you will find a highly informative 20 minute or so video which will make your tour much more understandable and interesting. Or at least that’s my opinion.
The Arts Building is used now as it was then for lectures and concerts. Today’s tour was given by the lady in the blonde hair whose name I sadly cannot remember.
This is Cyrus Teed who, after he had his “illumination”, later took the name Koresh which is apparently the Hebrew name for Cyrus. He called the belief system he created Koreshanity. His followers were known as Koreshans.
In the Arts Hall the guide begins the tour by telling his story from being born in New York, going to medical school, such as it was then, having an “illumination” while working on an electrical experiment and gathering followers for his new community which ultimately moved to the swamps of undeveloped Florida. That’s a very short sketch. The details are very interesting especially as regards how well his belief in the equality of women and men went over at that time.
He believed that women were virtual slaves in their marriages. Many women apparently agreed with him because they joined his group with their children. Not to say that couples did not also join but there were more women followers than men in the 200 who came to Florida with him. Given the rights of women in the late 19th century it isn’t hard to understand. Especially given Teed’s apparent charisma.
Here is Ron, the guide on my second tour who is the head guide and was excellent, discussing Teed’s version of the Hollow Earth Theory. I suspect Ron knows more about Teed and the Koreshans than anyone else at the park.
According to the theory, we are living inside the Earth with the planets and sun suspended in the center. Below is a model that he traveled with to explain this theory to potential new followers. This is the original model and it is quite lovely beautiful. This website has about the best short version explanation of the theory and Teed’s life that I’ve found.
From there the tour moves on to the other buildings still on the grounds. First we went to the original owner of the property’s home. The Damkohler House (1882) was the only structure on the property at the time Dr. Teed arrived. Gustave Damkohler, first invited Dr. Teed to visit Estero in 1894 and got caught up the charismatic Teed’s ideas. He deeded his 300 acres to help Teed found his New Jerusalem on Southwest Florida swampland.
Damkohler and his wife and 5 children lived in this one room cabin until all but his oldest son died here it is now thought from mosquito born malaria. His grief may have been partly responsible for his generosity. Apparently his eldest son was not so fond of the community and later Damkohler sued the unity to get his property back.
New followers arrived here at the Bamboo Landing on the Estero River (previously known before Damkohler renamed it as Mosquito Creek). There were no roads when the Koreshan’s arrived to create their utopia from swamp land. Everything and everyone came by boat.
In this picture the folks are looking at the former bamboo landing which was ripped from the shore and floated up river by the hurricane. It was brought back two days later after this picture it was removed from the river. The new landing had been finished just days before this tour.
You would disembark from your vessel and come up these steps to the Koreshan Property.
I believe the only permanent residents on the Estero Unity property now are a number of Gopher Tortoises whose homes are roped off with Green tape to protect them from visitors and to protect unwary visitors from breaking a leg. You will see these green roped squares at several places all over the grounds. If you look closely you will see three of them in the photo below
All of the original buildings of the Estero Unity have not been retained as they were too deteriorated when the property was donated to the state for the park and could not be restored. One of those was the dining hall which apparently at 3 stories tall was the tallest building for years between Naples and Fort Myers, a distance of 50 miles.
Here are three of the remaining buildings which have been restored and are on the National Register of Historic Places. On the far left is the Schlender cottage, in the middle the Vesta Newcomb cottage and on the right, the bakery.
This house, known as the Conrad Schlender Cottage, was once the membership cottage where prospective members of the community would stay while visiting
It is presumed that Conrad Schlender moved into the cottage during the depression and remained until his death in 1965. He had come to the community in 1907 just one year before Dr. Teed died and the community began to slowly shrink. He worked here as an agriculturalist and machinist and was one of the last two members of the early community and was allowed to live out his life here even after the land was donated to the state in 1961.
The story I was told about the Vesta Newcomb cottage was that the Koreshans each had a job to perform for the community for which they were paid in community script. They could use this script at the community store or cash it in to buy things else where such as train tickets to visit friends and relatives among other things.
Vesta Newcomb came from Chicago to Estero as one of the first of the Koreshan Unity with her mother and brother when she was 15. She lived her entire life here. The worked as a teacher for the children, in the kitchen and ran a linotype machine for their printing business. She ultimately used her money to move this house which had been the barber’s home on one side and his shop on the other, to this location where she died in 1974. The last of the original Koreshans
The former barber’s business was her sitting room.
His home became her bedroom.
And finally the bakery which at its height turned out 500 loaves of bread a day for the members and the Koreshan Store. The second floor had dormitory rooms as did the dining hall.
The largest buildings on the grounds are the Founders House and the Planetary Court.
The founders house is the oldest surviving structure on the Settlement built by the Koreshans as were all the other buildings. Arriving at the Bamboo Landing one would walk directly to the entrance of the Founder’s House. Upstairs was the children’s school with one staircase for the girls and a separate one for the boys.
The house had two large rooms downstairs and the school room was upstairs.
One of the downstairs rooms now is a theater room for the excellent video I recommend visitors see as the first thing they do when coming to the grounds.
This room is protected by a glass wall and thus the light is problematic but I wanted to show the original furniture in Dr. Teed’s bedroom and sitting room. The piece of furniture on the far left with the mirror is a murphy bed.
This picture is slightly better and at the bottom left shows the top of the tomb in which Teed was buried on Fort Myers Beach which was Koreshan Property at that time. They ultimately owned 7500 acres but had only 350 left by the time it was donated. As the members grew older, property was sold to maintain the community.
Several years after Teed’s death a hurricane washed all but the plaque out to sea. His body was never recovered. And yes that is a bust on the center back wall and a picture on the left of Napoleon. As I say, this is a VERY interesting story.
The final building is the one I find the most lovely. It was the home of the 7 members of the Planetary Court. Each had her own room. No dormitory living for these women. Cyrus Teed (Koresh) practiced what he preached. His governing “council” called the Planetary Court was made up of 7 women each of whom supervised and ran one of the unity’s businesses and dealt with the matters of the community while he was away. He of course was giving talks and lectures recruiting members.
Of course the rest of the world would not even allow a woman to have an accounts in her own name or to do business of any kind. So a brother of one of the planetary court lived in the top little room and he was the face of the community when business was necessary in the outside towns, shops and banks.
Here is a picture of Teed, on the far right and the 7 women, with banners, which hangs in the Founder’s House. It is of one of their annual celebrations.
Beats a dormitory any day wouldn’t you say? Love all the windows and light.
The staircase has never been treated or restored. It is made of Dade County Pine which does not rot and is resistant to termites. The pine of course was harvested faster than it could grow back. It once grew over 185,000 acres of Miami Dade County and was nearly decimated by 1996 with only 2% of the forest remaining. It has been protected from commercial logging since then and useable lumber can only be found in the reclamation process. It grows only in South Florida.
The planetary court dining room. The table could expand to the fit the 8 residents.
While it is not quite as good or as totally accurate (they say) as the current video, This video was shown at the park for years prior to being replaced 2 years ago with one they feel is more accurate and up to date.
As I said in my previous post if you want all the details, come down to Koreshan and buy this book at the Ranger’s Station or the Farmer’s Market. You can also order it on line.
The members of the Koreshan Unity were very hardworking, artistic and creative people. The grounds were beautifully landscaped with many exotic plants, some of which remain today as do this beautiful bridge and the gorgeous trees.
Every time I visit there is someone taking wedding pictures by the bridge.
Koreshan State Historic Site is a VERY interesting place and if you come in the last week of January or the first week of February, you just might get to see the GHOST WALK. I hear it is fabulous. I was here for one of the week-ends it happened but it was sold out. Wish I’d known to get tickets WAY early.