A visit to Florida’s ‘New Jerusalem’

Story and photos by Robert N. Jenkins

bobjenkinswrites.com

ESTERO, Fla. -- 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.

Sunlight reflects off this framed photo of Dr. Cyrus R. Teed, founder of the Koreshan Unity; the photo is on a foyer wall in the Planetary Court.Open year-round, the site includes 11 remaining buildings of the more than 50 constructed by followers of Cyrus R. 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 a bizarre scientific tenet: that the universe was a rotating sphere inside the Earth.

His ideas caught on

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, 5 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 23 miles south of the only community then, 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, mahogany, azaleas, Spanish bayonet …

Park volunteers re-created this Victorian-era bridge that once stretched over a pond at the Koreshan Unity Settlement.

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, sleeping cabins.

Well-furnished restorations

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.

This handsome 1900s building was the Planetary Court, home to the seven women (the Planetary Chamber) who were the settlement's administrators.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; 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 Art Hall, this device illustrates Teed's belief that the universe rotated inside a hollow sphere, the concave surface of which was 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 so-called New Store was built in 1920 to replace an aging general store on the banks of the river where it is now crossed by U.S. 41. The New Store included a restaurant for the passing public and some sleeping rooms in the upper floors. With the decline of the Koreshan community and growth of the surrounding area, the store lacked customers and was closed in 1963. It 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.

If you go

The Koreshan State Historic Site issome two dozen miles south of Fort Myers on Corkscrew Road at U.S. 41, about three miles west of I-75. It is open year-round and offers overnight camping at 60 sites, which have water and electricity, fire rings and picnic tables. The campground also has showers and a playground. Pets are allowed.

The park also has nature trails, canoes for rent and free booklets for self-guided tours, including one that locates the numerous non-native plants the Koreshans imported to create restful gardens.

Among special events during the busy season (January-March), ghost walks are conducted four times a night on the last two Fridays and Saturdays in January and first two in February. The fee is $10.

Admission to the park is $4 for a single-occupant vehicle, $5 for two to eight passengers.

For more information or to reserve a campsite, call (239) 992-0311 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/koreshan.

4. In the Art Hall, this device illustrates Teed's belief that the universe
rotated inside a hollow sphere, the concave surface of which was the Earth.

Photo credit for all: Robert N. Jenkins

 

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