ESTERO – A visit to the fascinating Koreshan State Historic Site, originally a 19th century community founded on unusual religious and scientific tenets, is simultaneously a walk back in time, a challenge to contemporary beliefs and a chance to relax in Florida's natural beauty.
Open year round, the site includes 11 remaining buildings of the more than 50 constructed by followers of Cyrus Teed, a medical doctor from upstate New York.
Beginning in early 1870, when Teed was 30, he told people that while in a trancelike state he had been visited by a female form that told him he was the Messiah and that he should create a "New Jerusalem'' for his followers
Teed took the name Koresh (pronounced core-ESH), Hebrew for Cyrus, and wandered New York State, proclaiming such Koreshan tenets as reincarnation and that God was both male and female.
He also announced that the universe was a rotating sphere inside the Earth.
Finally in the 1880s, he found some acceptance while lecturing in Chicago. He moved there and gathered followers, whom he called Koreshans. Believing his New Jerusalem would be 34 miles square, with a population of 10 million, Teed began seeking land. Which is what brought him, on Jan. 1, 1894, to the banks of the Estero River, five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 23 miles south of the only community there, Fort Myers.
Within a few weeks, the German immigrant who had invited Teed sold him 300 acres along the river. The Koreshans quickly loaded their belongings on trains headed south.
Now, park visitors need only walk a few yards along the crushed-shell paths to stand amid what those northerners encountered: palms, oaks, magnolias, azaleas, Spanish bayonet ...
The industrious Koreshans were to build a three-story dining hall and dormitory, a bakery, sawmill, electricity-generating plant, school, two general stores, machine shops and sleeping cabins.
The first permanent structure, in 1896, was a two-story Founder's Home, occupied in separate apartments by Teed and the woman whom he selected to be the Moon to his Sun.
In 1904, they built a lovely, two-story residence known as the Planetary Court, for the seven women who administered day-to-day matters.
About 1905, the settlers constructed a handsome, wood-paneled Art Hall, the venue for concerts by their 13-piece orchestra – often attended by Fort Myers winter residents Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
Park visitors can tour the one-story Art Hall and the ground floors of the Founder's Home and Planetary Court.
Walls of the Art Hall are adorned with paintings, some by Teed's estranged son. On the stage is an 1885 Steinway made with 85 keys (pianos typically have 88 keys); it is still played.
Also in the Hall is a unique artifact from 1897 resembling two giant T-squares joined to each other. To "prove'' that the Earth's surface was the concave interior of a giant globe inside which the universe rotated, Teed had four of these "rectilineators" put end to end on Fort Myers Beach, measurements were taken to keep the devices level with the horizon, and then they were continually moved until they had covered 4.7 miles. According to Teed, the subsequent readings proved his theory.
Near the surviving rectilineator, one globe rotates inside another to represent the universe within the Earth.
In the Founder's House, artifacts have been placed to re-create Teed's study, according to photos taken before he died, in December 1908. A looping video recounts the history of the Koreshan Unity Settlement.
The Planetary Court has been restored to its 1928 appearance. A curator has furnished the seven women's bedrooms with artifacts, based on snapshots displayed in a scrapbook. A large photo of Teed dominates the entry hall.
Rangers lead tours of these three buildings, and visitors can enter seven other structures. The New Store, built in 1920 to replace an aging general store on U.S. 41, was closed in 1963 and is not open for tours.
When the resident Koreshans had dwindled to four in 1961, they donated what is now the park site to the state. But the community had purchased thousands of surrounding acres, and much of that was sold in the 1990s to residential developers. The proceeds are held by the Teed-created organization now known as the College of Life Foundation.
Editor's note: This story was first published by VISITFLORIDA.com.