Estero, Florida, located just 17 miles from Fort Myers, is considered by many to be one of the best places to live in the state. Home to many retirees, Estero has a lot to offer, including shops, restaurants, parks, and a low crime rate. But modern-day retirees are not the first to discover the area suitable for their needs.
In 1894, a New York doctor named Cyrus Teed, who had founded a religion called Koreshanity, brought 300 of his followers to Estero to form a religious colony on 300 acres along the Estero River. Teed took the name Koresh (pronounced core-ESH), which is Hebrew for Cyrus, and believed that he was the Messiah, second only to Jesus. He believed his ‘New Jerusalem’ would eventually be 34 miles square and have a population of 10 million.
The Koreshans, as they called themselves, built a three-story dining hall and dormitory, a bakery, sawmill, electric power generating plant, a school, two general stores, machine shops, sleeping cabins, and the Art Hall, which was a venue for concerts performed by their 13-piece orchestra. The performances must have been good, because many winter residents of Fort Myers attended them, as did Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
A council of women called the ‘Seven Sisters’ managed the day to day affairs of the settlement. These women lived in a common house referred to as the Planetary Court.
Among the group’s religious/pseudo-scientific beliefs were reincarnation, collectivism (in which they lived a communal lifestyle with all sharing in the work and reaping the benefits), alchemy, that God was both male and female, and celibacy, which they believed was a scientific way to guarantee immortality.
The celibacy thing was what spelled the eventual end for the Koreshans. As they got older and were not able to attract new members, their numbers dwindled. By 1961 only four of them remained. They donated the site to the State of Florida, which has preserved it as Koreshan State Historic Site. Open year round, the site includes 11 remaining buildings of the more than 50 the Koreshans erected during their tenure there.
Today visitors can tour the one-story Art Hall and the ground floors of the Founder’s Home where Koresh lived, and the Planetary Court. The Art Hall’s stage still holds an 1885 Steinway piano with 85 keys, different from the typical 88 keys a piano has.
The Founder’s House holds artifacts placed to re-create Teed’s study, based upon photos taken before he died in 1908. A looping video recounts the history of the Koreshan Unity Settlement.
A large photo of Teed dominates the entry hall of the Planetary Court, which has been restored to its 1928 appearance. The Seven Sister’s bedrooms are furnished with artifacts based on snapshots displayed in a scrapbook. Rangers lead tours of these three buildings daily, and visitors can enter seven other structures dating back to the Koreshans.
The park also has nature trails, canoe/kayak rentals, and self-guided tours, including one that locates the numerous non-native plants the Koreshans imported to create gardens. There are 60 campsites with water and electricity, fire rings, and picnic tables. The campground has showers and a playground. Pets are allowed, but must be on leash. Campsites are $26 per night, plus tax and a non-refundable $6.70 reservation fee. Florida residents who are 65 years of age or older, or who have a Social Security disability award certificate or a 100 percent disability award certificate from the Federal Government, receive a 50 percent discount on current base campsite fees. Proof of eligibility is required.
The Koreshan State Historic Site is located at 3800 Corkscrew Road, about three miles west of Interstate 75. It is open year-round. Admission to the park is $4 for a single-occupant vehicle and $5 for two to eight passengers. For more information or to reserve a campsite call 239-992-0311 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/koreshan.
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