On our pilgrimage to here, we have arrived at our three-month winter home in Estero, Florida. As I was preparing to write this first blog, it occurred to me that the next three months of our pilgrimage suggest a different approach. The blog becomes less of a travelogue and more reflective, more like chapters in a book, or pages in a journal. It may unfold as if one were floating down the figurative branches and streams that come up as Peter and I learn about the place, and about ourselves, as we volunteer at Koreshan State Historic Site as docents.
Since we are both into studying the history of the Koreshan settlement (more on this later in this post) I am discovering it is opening new pathways to synchronicity and relevance that on first look, seemed so unlikely, and invite commentary. I can imagine some later reflections on what it is like to witness the community of Estero in action from a more in-depth perspective as I get to know people who live here in the area and who interact with us as fellow volunteers. Who are they? Where did they come from before they moved here? What brought them here? How have they adapted to being in this part of Florida that appears to be groaning in the labor pains of birthing.
And who comes to visit this historic park? What brought these visitors here and drew them to discover, and commit to spending a couple of hours in this unusual place? There may be people who we meet who find their way into some of these blogs in unexpected ways.
With that as a kind of backdrop, let me start by setting the stage for this place, Koreshan State Historic Site. The short version of understanding the history of the Koreshan community is to understand that it was a utopian community founded here in 1894 by a charismatic leader, Dr. Cyrus Teed. Teed was born outside of Binghamton, New York in 1839 to a large and hard-working family of Baptists. Ministers were in the family and there was a hope that Teed would continue in that line. Teed had other ideas. The mid-1800s was a time of great religious revival and Teed lived literally right in the geographic heart of the country where some of the movements developed. He greatly admired the Shakers who had come to central New York from England and had established a communal settlement. He knew of the Harmonists in northern Pennsylvania, and of a community called the Perfectionists who were based in Oneida and sustained the community as silversmiths. He knew of Joseph Smith, the father of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who came from central New York. We can surmise that even though becoming a Baptist minister was not in his plans, he did have an interest in finding meaning and purpose in his life.
Teed had been in the Union Army during the Civil War and when recovering from an injury, noticed that soldiers with a strong faith seemed to heal more quickly. That led him to study medicine and healing which eventually merged with his quest for religious purpose. In 1869, Teed had a vision which he later cited as the source of direction for his teachings. He took the name “Koresh”, the Hebrew translation of his first name Cyrus. In his vision, he imagined a community where men and women shared equity in a “New Jerusalem” where all property was communally owned in the self-sufficient settlement. He imagined God as both male and female and therefore, held women in high esteem and from the get-go, women held leadership roles in the settlement. Celibacy was a basic belief along with a lively support of the arts, education, and healthy lifestyle.
The religion was based on a scientific belief that God had created the entire universe within a giant, hollow sphere. This idea of the hollow earth has been in human consciousness for as long as there have been humans. In reflecting on this, I am reminded of the myths and beliefs of the Hopi (and other native peoples), which tell the story of animals and plants and people emerging from inside the earth. With the advent of science and the age of reason, this ancient idea found new champions. In the 19th century well-known people like Jules Verne and John Symmes blended it with the science of the day to support the belief. Most likely, Teed would have read about these concepts, which were covered in popular magazines of the day, and he tweaked them into his own vision of making sense of creation and our place in it.
After his vision, he continued his physician practice and started his first communal settlement in Moravia, New York in 1880 and later moved it to Chicago where it flourished. However, after several years there, the growing settlement invited some unfriendly and hostile responses from those at odds with the religious, scientific and cultural beliefs of the community. He found a seemingly more amicable location in southwest Florida where relative isolation and lots of available land held promise for the settlement of his vision.
At its peak (1903-1908) there were 200 members, 80% of whom were educated women, not surprising given the reality that this was long before women had the right to vote, and before they could own property. The teachings of Teed, and the new community of Koreshan, offered a powerful option to many women.
Originally owning over 7,500 acres of land between Fort Myers and Naples right along the Gulf, this unusual community managed to gain a foothold for a few precious years forming a thriving and successful community until the death of its founder in 1908. There was a power plant that produced electricity, a laundry, printing press, sawmill, bakery, school, and a store.
After Teed’s death, a leadership vacuum developed and the loss of the charismatic leader led to internal squabbles and divides. Over the next decades, the community went into a slow decline, the majority of the land was sold and in 1961, 305 acres of land was given to the state of Florida by the last surviving member of the community. It was her belief that giving this historic village to the state, the story and the material archives and the significance of what happened here would be preserved.
As we know, telling the story of a place does keep it alive. We now see how being a docent offers the prospect of helping visitors and ourselves see more about the history of this settlement within the relevant historical context. We invite you to come along as we traverse the mystery…
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, settling into three months of volunteer time at Koreshan State Historic Park in Estero, Florida, living in their Airstream.