The Koreshans: First Community
on Fort Myers Beach
Who were the Koreshans – creators of the first community on Fort Myers Beach in the 1890s? Some classify the group – which had its heyday from 1893 to 1910 – as a cult. Koreshans were enterprising, industrious builders, bakers, cement makers, generators of electricity, gardeners, and philosophers. They believed in women’s equality; loved art, luxury, and fine living; and aimed to build a New Jerusalem in the wilds of southwest Florida. And they were derided as the "crazies from Chicago”, whose Cellular Cosmogony proclaimed that we humans live inside a hollow sphere that is the planet Earth.
Stan Malecki, a volunteer at the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, provided a glimpse into the fascinating world of the Koreshans through his presentation to the final 2012-13 public meeting of the Estero Island Historic Society, on Monday, March 11.
Now retired, Stan Malecki spends the winters in southwest Florida, volunteering his time at the Koreshan State Historic Site at Koreshan State Park on US 41, in Estero. Stan demonstrates and teaches Dutch-oven bread baking at the historic 1903 bakery, using authentic recipes devised by the Koreshans, who relished gourmet foods. During historic re-enactments and "ghost tours”, Stan portrays such figures as Arcadian cowboy Bone Meisel and the Koreshans’ founder, Cyrus Teed.
Cyrus Teed, Charismatic Leader
Cyrus Read Teed was born on October 18, 1839 near Trout Creek, New York. He dropped out of school at age 11 to work on the towpath of the Erie Canal, and later studied allopathic medicine, graduating from Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York in 1868.
In fall 1869, Cyrus had what he called his "divine Illumination". While working in his laboratory, he claimed to have changed lead into gold (otherwise known as alchemy). Later that evening, he had a vision in which he saw God in the form of a beautiful woman, who told him the secret of the Universe and his place in it. Teed was told that he would interpret the symbols of the Bible for the scientific age. Thus was born the Cellular Cosmogony, which was later "proven” by scientific experiments on Fort Myers Beach.
Two factors may have influenced Teed’s visions in his laboratory. As a young Corporal with the 127th New York Infantry of the New York volunteers in 1863, he fell ill with sunstroke and was hospitalized for 2 months. He suffered partial paralysis on one side for the rest of his life. The night of Teed’s "divine illumination”, he had received such a severe electrical shock in his lab that he was rendered unconscious.
Whatever the origins of his "illumination”, in 1888 Cyrus Teed founded the Koreshan Unity in Chicago, with a membership of 100, 83 of whom were women.
Koreshan religious doctrine borrowed from the Shakers and the Harmonists – both utopian, communal orders. Cyrus Teed advocated communal living, equality for men and women, and celibacy – yet he surrounded himself with attractive members of the opposite sex, and shared his home with Annie G. Ordway (who called herself Victoria Grazia), whom he regarded as the Moon, complementing his stature as Sun. By 1891, Teed began to refer to himself as Koresh – the Hebrew translation of Cyrus.
Koresh came to Lee County in 1893 with 3 female followers, hoping to purchase land to build his Utopian commune, which he predicted would one day grow to 10 million souls. On a second trip, Koresh met early German settler Gustav Damkohler, whom he persuaded first to sell, then to donate a large tract of land to the Koreshans. A later lawsuit against the Koreshans by Damkohler (settled out of court) claimed he had been swindled. This was one of several lawsuits – alleging various illegal or immoral acts – that pursued Cyrus Teed from New York to Chicago and Florida.
In 1894, the Koreshans settled on the Estero River in Estero. That same year, from a squatter, they purchased land on Estero Island on the bay side of the southern point for $20.Here they promptly put up a sawmill to cut island pines and mahogany for a pier.They also milled wood to build homes, docks and boats, as the mailboat made deliveries three days a week.
By 1898, the Koreshans had purchased the entire south end of the island, and in 1910 the northern point, now called Bowditch Point, where they built a boat landing.
A Thriving Settlement of Industrious People
On November 17, 1903, the last Koreshans left Chicago, bringing with them 15 train-car loads of possessions and equipment. By early 1904 there were 200 people at the Koreshan Unity, and on September 1, 1904 – largely at the behest of the settlement – a meeting was held to incorporate Estero, an area of 110 square miles.
Although they resided in a tropical region that was largely wilderness, the Koreshans enjoyed living in high style. Among the tons of goods they brought down by train from Chicago (which then had to be transshipped by boat and sometimes wagon) were elegant furniture, linens, dishes, flatware, and home decorations. The luggage included an 1885 Steinway piano – a special commemorative instrument with only 85 keys, symbolizing the year of its manufacture. The piano still stands at the Koreshan State Historic Site, and is valued at over $200,000.
They also brought printing presses – on which they produced a weekly newspaper, The American Eagle – a 2-cylinder Fairbanks-Morris diesel engine, and a massive alternator, which they used to generate electricity. Thomas Edison visited the settlement to investigate how the Koreshans generated electricity, but whereas they used AC (alternating current), Edison favored DC (direct current), and they had a falling out over this.
Homes and dormitories (separate quarters for males and females, with the exception of Koresh) were large, robustly built, and elegantly furnished. The stylish "La Parita" was built on the south end of Estero Island for Cyrus Teed and his personal guests.This grand, two-story complex was the site of beach parties, picnics, and outings. Visitors arrived in the elaborate, shallow-draft "run boats" that the Koreshans built for local transportation (there were no roads). They often picnicked and swam on Big Hickory Island, off Lovers’ Key.
According to Peter Hicks, a former Ranger at the Koreshan State Historic Site (from the unofficial Koreshan historic website at http://mwweb.org/koreshan/blog/):
"Between 1894-1908, the Koreshans acquired 5,736 acres of land at a cost of $3,310. Businesses at Estero included: Utilities and Electrical Works, Sculpture and Concrete Works, Tin Works, Mattress Making Shop, Hat and Basket Weaving Shop, Shoe Shop, Blacksmith Shop, Print Shop, Laundry, Dining Hall, Saw Mill, and Boat Works. They bought a furniture plant in Bristol, Tennessee in 1906 for $75,000 and were negotiating with the government of Honduras for a grant of 200,000 acres of land for colonization. They bought the San Carlos Hotel in St. James City as a possible site for the World College of Life. However, it burned down on July 26, 1905 while it was being remodeled. Acreage on Mound Key was bought from Frank Johnson.”
Every Koreshan was expected to work for the benefit of the settlement. And work hard, they did. The cement plant, which produced statuary and urns, was run by Koreshan women, as was the laundry with its high-speed dryer that rotated 2,000 revolutions per minute. The bakery had its own cookhouse, with wood fed into the ovens from outside. Not only did the Koreshans bake delicious white, honey-wheat and chocolate bread, they made their own charcoal.
The enterprising settlers cultivatedcoconut palms, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and a range of vegetables. Their preserves and jams were renowned, and exported as far away as New York. The compound’s German gardener befriended Edison’s own German gardener, and the two traded plants, ideas, and techniques. Both properties contained many exotic plants.
The grounds of the Koreshan Unity were beautifully landscaped. The Sunken Gardens (since disappeared) were a popular feature, as was the Victorian Bridge, recently restored to its original glory. To avoid flooding from hurricane tides on the Estero River, the settlers dug canals all around their compound, so water would flow into these channels and not onto the property or into buildings.
Education, Contribution, and Decay
Many of the Koreshans were well-educated people of means – some were college graduates. Though followers were supposed to remain celibate while in the Unity, some had brought offspring with them from before they joined the group, and these children were well schooled. Education and culture were highly valued. Not only the 3 Rs were part of the Koreshan curriculum in their home school; music, art, cosmogony, and philosophy were featured. Mealtimes were gracious occasions where talking was not permitted.
The Koreshans put on elaborately costumed plays and musical concerts. They invited the general public to their shows, which proved to be a popular entertainment and rare local source of culture. Koresh himself gave occasional public lectures, with his piercing eyes and resonant voice perhaps more captivating than his 2-hour discourses. The locals also benefitted from the Koreshan Unity General Store, which sold their popular bread and preserves.
Koresh demanded that his followers renounce personal possessions and cede all their goods and property to him. Koreshans could leave the Unity, and the movement, at any time; but if they stayed 6 months, they forfeited anything they had owned or created.
The group’s prosperity, growing political involvement, and communal lifestyle eventually created friction with the locals. The Koreshans formed the Progressive Liberty Party to run against the area’s established Democrats in the election of 1906.
According to Catherine A. Anthony, writing on the unofficial Koreshan historic website:
"The above, fueled by a misunderstanding over a telephone conversation, finally resulted in an altercation between several Koreshan men, including Teed, and some citizens of Fort Myers, accompanied by the town marshal, on October 13, 1906. Soon after the fight, Teed’s health began to fail abruptly, and it was generally accepted, at least among his followers, that his death, on December 22, 1908, could be directly attributed to the injuries he received in the brawl.
One aspect of Teed’s 1869 "illumination” was that, upon physical death, he would reincarnate and reemerge immortal. Accordingly, in the days immediately following Teed’s death, the Koreshans awaited his resurrection. Moreover, members within the Koreshan Unity Settlement practiced celibacy and had been promised by Teed that they, too, would become immortal upon his resurrection. Therefore, by the time Christmas Day had come and gone, hope turned to disappointment, and, on December 27th, the county health officer ordered that the body be interred.”
Koresh’s body was placed in a concrete tomb with an eternal flame, at the far south end of Fort Myers Beach. Devout members of the Unity stood watch in the event of his resurrection. The hurricane of 1921 later washed away the entire south end of the island, as well and as the tomb and all of its environs.
Dissension over who would succeed Koresh as leader, and disillusionment at his failure to come back to life, led to the decay and dissolution of the Koreshan movement. Younger members left shortly after Koresh’s death, yet some stalwarts stayed on.
In 1940 there were still 35 elderly members at the Unity. Hedwig Michel, a Jewish woman who had fled Nazi Germany, arrived and began to reorganize the businesses associated with the Koreshan Unity, reviving its prosperity by adding a restaurant, gas station, and Western Union office.
The last of the Koreshans died in 1984. In 1961, the final 4 members offered to donate the 300-acre compound to the State of Florida. It became the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.Eleven of the community’s buildings remain within Koreshan State Historic Site, housing a collection of approximately 5,000 artifacts – including the gigantic alternator (which no longer functions).
To step back in time to one of our area’s most unique communities, visit the Koreshan State Historic Site website at http://www.floridastateparks.org/koreshan/, and plan a visit.
If you see smell fresh bread baking, or see the ghost of Cyrus Teed walk by, don’t be alarmed. It’s just Stan Malecki up to his usual tricks.