Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, Florida

The Koreshan State Historic Site is one of the most fascinating spots in Florida, and maybe even in the United States. The Koreshan Unity was a communal utopia formed by Dr. Cyrus Teed. The Koreshans followed Teed's beliefs, called Koreshanity.

Cyrus Teed, born in 1839, was a physician and alchemist turned religious leader and messiah. He had a mystical experience in which he saw a vision of a beautiful woman who revealed the secrets of the universe to him. He changed his name to “Koresh,” the Hebrew version of his name, “Cyrus,” meaning “shepherd or Messiah.”  The Koreshan Unity started in the 1870s in New York, where Teed started preaching his beliefs. 

 In the 19th century, urbanization, industrialization, population growth and immigration were taking place at a rapid pace. It was not surprising that some people gathered into one of the growing number of utopian communities established to escape from the surrounding chaos into a seemingly ideal society.

In 1893, around 250 believers followed Teed to Estero and constructed various buildings, including a print shop, where they published a newsletter; a power plant, where they generated their own electricity and even sold it to homes in the surrounding area; a bakery, where the “risin’ bread” was sold in the general store; a steam laundry; an Art Hall, where they put on plays and band concerts; a three-story community dining hall; the “Master’s House,” a home for Teed; and the Planetary Court. 

On December 22, 1908, Teed died. His followers, who believed in reincarnation, left him in a bathtub awaiting his second coming, which of course never occurred. After a peak at 250 residents in 1903–1908, the group went into decline after his death and disappeared in 1961, when the last four members deeded the land to the state.


“In 1893, the Koreshans, a religious sect founded by Dr. Cyrus R. Teed, moved here. Communal living and a belief that the universe existed on the inside of the earth were among the distinctive features of their doctrine.  Living celibate lives, the industrious Koreshans established a farm, nursery, and botanical garden. Their cultural activities included art and music. In 1961, the surviving members of the settlement presented their property to the state of Florida.”

Marlene at the beginning of the tour

Art Hall and Swamp Mahogany tree - 1905

The first Art Festival in Estero was held by the Koreshans in 1905 when they opened their newly built Art Hall, complete with a stage capable of seating their 28-piece orchestra. They had concerts, plays, and religious services for their 250 residents, and nearby homesteaders and neighbors also attended their concerts and plays.

Park Ranger Mike, our tour leader for the day

Bay Oaks visitors at the entrance to the Art Hall:
Karen, Marlene, Pauline, Carmen, Gail, Antoinette, & Kathy

Volunteer docent John with a model of the universe according to Koreshan beliefs

The Koreshans believed in the Hollow Earth theory; that is, the world in which we live is contained within a sphere, and we live on the INSIDE of the sphere, with centrifugal force holding us down, rather than gravity. And the sun is in the center of the sphere.

Marlene & Carmen admiring artwork in the Art Hall

Cypress Glade by Paul Sargent, a collectable artist and son of the Koreshan John Sargent

Carmen, Kathy & Karen ready for the presentation in the Art Hall

Map of New Jerusalem

Teed brought his followers to Estero, Florida, near Naples, in 1894 to build New Jerusalem for his new faith. He envisioned a utopian city of 10,000,000 people, with New Jerusalem as its capital. In 1891, Teed assumed the name Koresh, the Hebrew word for Cyrus, in honor of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who ended the 70-year captivity of the Jews in Babylonia and led them back to Jerusalem. 

Trip leader Danielle in the Art Hall with a landscape painting by Paul Sargent

Scientific proof that we live on the inside of the globe

Gail in the Art Hall 

Behind her is a display case with a telescope used by the Koreshans.

Original violin used in the Koreshan orchestra

The Grand Piano on the stage of the Art Hall, still used for recitals today

Marlene, Pauline & Antoinette standing in front of the Art Hall stage

Planetary Court

The day to day affairs of the settlement were governed by a council of women called "The Seven Sisters." The Seven Sisters lived in a common house called The Planetary Court. Women made up a large number of Teed’s followers because of  his belief in the equality of women, not a very popular belief at the time.  

Women of the Planetary Court

Bay Oaks group with the ranger in front of the Planetary Court

The Planetary Court building - 1904

A very bold, if slow-moving, gopher tortoise in the yard by the Planetary Court

Foyer of the Planetary Court

Campbell-Trebell Meeting Room in the Planetary Court

Berthaldine Sterling Boomer Room 

Each of the “Seven Sisters” had her own room, which opened to the outdoors.

Eleanor Castle Room

Henrietta Silverfriend Room

Evelyn Trickett Bubbett Room

Virginia Harmon Andrews Room

Stairs to the upper floor of the Planetary Court

Ella Graham Room

Rose Welton Gilbert Room

View from the cupola of the Planetary Court

Ordinarily, the ranger doesn’t take visitors up to the topmost point of the building, but he took us up.

Side view of the Planetary Court

Founder’s House - 1896

Cyrus Teed’s Sitting Room, circa 1905

This exhibit is a reproduction of Cyrus Teed’s Sitting Room. It was designed to resemble actual archival photos of the room. Other items were included to reflect Teed’s personality and interests. 

Founder’s House Sitting Room

The majority of the furnishings are from a permanent collection--actual pieces of furniture owned by Koreshan members. The curtains and some textiles are reproductions of the originals in photographs.

Stairs down to the Bamboo Landing on the Estero River

Photo of the Bamboo Landing - 1894

Before the Art Hall was built, the Koreshans performed at the Bamboo Landing by the Estero River, with the audience sitting in their boats. The Koreshans had several boats, some more than 50 feet long, as boats were the only practical means of travel to Fort Myers or to the world outside of Estero. There were no roads at this time. 

Gail, Kathy, Antoinette, Carmen, Karen, Marlene & Pauline on the Bamboo Landing

Estero River and Bamboo Landing

White Victorian Bridge leading to Monkey Puzzle Island, where the sunken gardens were located

“Monkey Puzzle” is a huge tree, about 70 feet tall. The Koreshans imported a wide range of plant species from across the world, including  Monkey Puzzle Trees;  a number of sausage trees, which are native to Africa; eucalyptus, mango and other fruit bearing trees; Japanese bamboo, originally from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates; and many different flowering trees and plants. Aside from providing a food source, the Koreshans’ deep interest in horticulture reflects Teed’s practice of using botanical remedies rather than strong drugs.

The Vesta Newcomb Cottage, circa 1920

In the 1940s, the house was moved from its original location to the Koreshan settlement, when Vesta moved into the cottage as her residence. Born in 1878, Vesta served the Koreshan community in many capacities. She was the personal maid to Victoria Gratia, née Annie Ordway, who Teed thought embodied the female version of God and was to be Teed’s successor. Vesta was also a  teacher of the Koreshan school children, helped run the dining room kitchen, worked in the sawmill and assisted in the laundry. 

Inside Vesta’s cottage

Vesta described the conditions when the Koreshans first arrived in Estero: “We pitched our tents and slept for ten months on the sometimes muddy ground…there were times when we went hungry.” Vesta added that, one winter, they survived solely on peanuts.  

Inside Vesta’s cottage

When asked whether or not she really believed that she lived inside the earth, Vesta replied, “I did until the boys landed on the moon. When that happened, I knew it couldn’t possibly be true.” Vesta passed away on April 5, 1974. (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 spaceflight landed on the moon in 1969.)

Conrad Schlender Cottage, circa 1903

The architectural style of this cottage is “Florida Wood Frame Vernacular,” steeply pitched to shed rain quickly. The ceilings were open beam, allowing the summer heat to rise, and doors and windows were placed across from one another to allow for cross-ventilation. Conrad Schlender, one of the last Koreshans living within the settlement, lived in this cottage until his death in 1965.

Grave of Hedwig Michel, the last Koreshan

Hedwig Michel was the last Koreshan to live at the Koreshan settlement. She died in 1982 and is the only Koreshan buried on the grounds.

The machinery complex

Large Machine Shop - 1904

The structure was built to contain the steam power machinery that served the adjacent laundry.  The line shaft mounted in the ceiling provided power to the machinery.

Small Machine Shop - 1905

The workshop manufactured machine parts and kitchen items and provided timepiece and shoe repair services.

Electric Generator Building 

The electric generating equipment generated electricity to the buildings of the Settlement in the 1920s.

 Damkohler House - 1882

This cottage was the only structure on the property when Cyrus Teed arrived.  Gustav Damkohler was a German settler who donated the land on the Estero River to the Koreshan Unity for its settlement. When Teed arrived in 1894, he used this one-room cottage as his home base for his initial six-week stay in Estero.

Lunch at First Watch Restaurant 

After our tour, we went for lunch nearby at First Watch Restaurant. First Watch is located across from Coconut Point and specializes in breakfast and lunch dishes. Seated around the table are Pauline, Marlene, Becky, Antoinette, Karen, Carmen, Kathy, Danielle and Gail.