By the time we had packed up and were pulling out of the campground at Big Cypress Preserve, the day had definitely declared itself to be solidly overcast. With no hope of a reprieve, our weather app showed rain to the west. We would be driving smack dab into it. We put on a good face . . . our rig needed a decent wash down, and besides, we didn’t have any other activities planned for the day. We’d just sit back, enjoy the ride and not let a little rain bother us.
That little rain turned out to be a bigger event than we had expected. Even the prognosticators were caught off guard. The system going through decided to stall out right over southwest Florida. For the next couple of days we would face an onslaught of rain showers, with few interruptions. It was warm, but it was wet. Oh well, it could be much worse . . . we could be up north where the precipitation was of a more frozen type.
Our second morning produced a break in the weather. Wasting no time, we decided to take a tour of the historical aspects of this particular Florida State Park. Anxious to break the cabin fever we felt setting in, with umbrellas in hand we took off down the trail leading through the tropical vegetation.
This state park was established on lands donated by the Koreshans that had built a community here in the late 1800s. Buildings that they had constructed still existed, with the help of some restoration work. A self-interpretative map and trail took us through the area as we learned what had been established here so many decades ago. We found it to be a fascinating story.
Dr. Cyrus Teed was a medical doctor who served in the Civil War. After the war, he had an “illumination” in 1869 that led him to believe that the universe did not in fact exist outside of our world, but rather inside our world, which was a hollow, giant sphere. Soon after, he began touring and lecturing to espouse his theory. As events unfolded, his community of believers grew and by the 1890s he had quite a following congregating in Chicago. Not unsurprisingly, the little group wasn’t exactly accepted within the local society, so Dr. Teed set out to find a better location for his foundling society to grow and prosper.
He found that place to be the wilderness of the South Florida frontier. He purchased hundreds of acres that included a lonely settler’s humble cabin. It still stands here today.
His group of several hundred, including women and children, soon followed. They brought many of their possessions from the privileged lifestyle that they were leaving behind. It would be a few years before they could live in that comfort they were forsaking for the rough life that they would now endure. It’s hard to imagine just how much charisma one man can exude to entice these people to such a harsh new life . . . a life that needed to be carved out of thick mangroves, pine trees, scrub oaks and bamboo forests.
They built their new community along the banks of the Estero River in a hot, humid, mosquito-infested wilderness. It took them 3 years just to have buildings to accommodate their daily lives. Even today, the overgrowth of wilderness hems in their development and it isn’t difficult to imagine what the land was like back then.
They didn’t stop with just the bare necessities, but went on to construct some comfortable and very civilized structures. The industrious community had a sawmill, a bakery, a printing facility, even a restaurant and hotel along what one day would become the Tamiami Highway (back then it was merely a dirt road).
Dr. Teed came to this land with grand ideas of a ‘New Jerusalem’. “It is the purpose of the Koreshan Unity to inaugurate the construction of a great city.” His vision encompassed a planned city that would accommodate up to ten million people.
Dr. Teed wanted his city to embrace a system of formal gardens laid out in patterns of applied geometry. Gardens would nourish the spirit rather than the body, he proclaimed. His people began the rudimentary layouts of this idea and even today after all these years gone by, some evidence of their work still exists.
The gardens featured mounds, terraces and hedges. Trellises, gazebos, benches, and ornamental fountains and urns also dotted the settlement’s landscape.
After learning about this small, diligent community and seeing the evidence of their hard work, we walked away being quite impressed with what a determined, single-minded group of people can accomplish in just a few short decades. Even though the buildings went through some renovation, their basic framework is a tribute to their efforts.
The Koreshan Unity was founded upon the ideas of communal living and property, the belief in Dr. Teed’s religious and scientific theories, and the communistic goal of everyone working for the good of all. It was to be a Utopia, a life without crime, tobacco or drugs. And all members were to live a celibate life. How that lifestyle would propagate his community was a mystery.
Consequently, by 1961 there were only 4 members still living here. The last Koreshan lived in a modest cabin on the settlement where she died in 1982. The last Koreshans made the decision to donate their property and all it encompassed to the State of Florida as a ‘Gift to the People.’ Today it is part of the Koreshan State Historic Site.
To our surprise and relief, the rains held off for those couple of hours spent exploring the Koreshan community. No sooner had we returned to camp, the rains started up again. Although we had a nice campsite and ample space around what had the potential for making a wonderful campfire, there would be no opportunity. We spent the remainder of that day and evening within the confines of our trailer, cozy but enclosed.
As events have a way of turning, our morning of departure showed clear skies. Sunny Florida weather had returned, but too late to salvage the lost opportunities here. We had places to go and reservations waiting. We would meet up with family at our next destination.
We drove out of that tropical, overgrown and still somewhat wild piece of land with at least one worthwhile experience under our belts.
Chris and Melinda