Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Koreshan State Historic Site

Several communal societies were established in the United State at the turn of the century. The Shakers built communities based on celibacy and communal property before 1800. Joseph Smith led the Mormons to Utah in the mid 19th century. George Rapp founded the Harmonists in Pennsylvania. The common denominator was the search for the ideal. Florida has seen it's fair share of early pioneers from far and wide but none as unusual as Dr Cyrus Reed Teed. Situated on the grounds of Koreshan State Park is the historic settlement Teed founded known as "The Koreshan Unity".

The Unity was a religious Utopian community originally founded in upstate New York by Dr Cyrus Reed. Later, it was headquartered in Chicago before making it's permanent home south of Fort Myers in Estero, Florida, on 320 acres of land where Teed intended to find the "New Jerusalem". Among the most interesting beliefs of Koreshanity was cellular cosmogony, or the hollow earth. According to the cellular cosmogony, the earth was not a convex sphere but instead a hollow, concave cell containing the entire universe with the sun at its center and people living on Earth inside the hollow cell. I still don't understand the concept even though it was explained a few times. Koreshan's also believed that God was both male and female. They also believed in reincarnation and equality for both sexes.

The Koreshan Unity became well established by 1904 with the building of several buildings including residences, a bakery, a machine shop, a general store, a publishing house, a Planetary Court, a power plant that produced electricity not only for the Koreshan community but also parts of southwest Florida. The Bakery would produce 500-600 loaves of bread per day not only for members but to sell in the general store. The Art Hall famous for it's plays, concerts, lectures, and religious activities is where my tour started.
The Art Hall, note the lack of vegetation and no 6 lane Tamiami Trail (US 41) yet
The Art Hall today, US 41 is 200 ft to the left 
Shell pathways throughout the settlement were used for several reasons. Crushed shells reflected light in the evening making it easier to maneuver around the settlement. It also made for a firm walking surface. Approaching footsteps could be easily heard.

How did Cyrus Teed, also known as Koresh acquire the land in Estero? Teeds first trip to Florida in 1893 was a bust, the price of land was way too high. Before leaving he conducted a series of lectures and distributed pamphlets. A German immigrant, Gustave Damkohler whom homesteaded on the Estero River in 1882 became very interested in the Koreshan Unity. He believed that Koreshanity was the next great religion. He sold Teed 300 acres of undeveloped land for $200. By 1907 the Unity owned 6,000 acres in southwest Florida.
The only building on the 300 acres was Damkohler's house
Gustave Damkohler

Before the construction of the Tamiami Trail (US 41), the Estero River was the main means of transportation for goods and people. Bamboo Landing provided a formal landing to the Koreshan Unity world.
Bamboo Landing
Back in the day one would arrive at Bamboo Landing via the Estero River and walk directly to the Founders' House. This building is the oldest surviving structure on the settlement built by the Koreshans. It was also built using milled pine siding instead of logs. Pine shakes also replaced the palmetto thatch roof.
The Koreshans developed gardens for aesthetic purposes as well as a place to nourish the spirit and not the body. Exotic trees and plants were brought in from around the world.

Monkey Puzzle Tree native to 
Washingtonia Palms native to 
South America 

Tulip Tree
Sausage Tree native to Africa

Tulip Tree Flowering

The land was a wilderness in 1894 but the Koreshians were able to carve beautiful gardens through the thick mangroves, scrub oak, and saw palmettos. Trellises, gazebos, benches fountains, and bridges dotted the settlement landscape.
Once the tallest structure in Lee County, the Dining Hall was three stories tall. The upper floors were dormitories for women and children while the lower floor would accommodate everyone for meals. The building was demolished in 1949, all that remains today is the dinner bell.
Dining Hall
Dinner Bell

The day to day affairs of the Koreshan Unity was governed by a council of seven women. All lived under one roof called the Planetary Court. Each person had a separate room which could be accessed from a central hall or the outside porches.

The Planetary Court

The entire tour took about 1 1/2 hours and was well worth the $2. I only covered part of this very interesting society. Today, all that remains of the original Koreshan Unity is the College of Life Foundation in Estero. Their mission is to educate and preserve the history of southwest Florida. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rhonda and Susan-
    Can't believe you got 2 pups. Love it! We just checked your site because we were talking about you guys wondering where you were. We leave FL panhandle on Sat heading to ARK, IN then Michigan up to the UP over the next 3 months then will probably head west for rest of summer. Love to see you guys again. Betsy and Nancy