It’s been almost 100 years since a utopian cult from Chicago sprouted south Lee County’s first city on the banks of the Estero River.
And although the municipality was short-lived, the town’s impression on this region is still being felt as civic and community leaders prepare to celebrate Estero’s Centennial in November.
The Koreshans settled in Estero just before the turn of the 20th century and founded an enormously successful society that flourished for decades.
Led by Cyrus Teed — a New York native who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Koreshans had plans to turn Estero into New Jerusalem, a celibate and communal city of 10 million.
They started earnestly enough, building an advanced printing press while at the same time bringing electricity to what was then a remote swampland.
“They envisioned this would be the New Jerusalem,” said Estero Historical Society president Mimi Straub. “During the time they were incorporated, it was really the height of their society.”
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Incorporation was a major step in the planned transformation. Teed knew this; and with other leaders he was able to convince the state to christen Estero as a town in September of 1904.
“They had big dreams,” Straub said. “They thought this was really going to become a city of 10 million.”
Estero stretched from about a mile north of Gladiolus Drive almost all the way south to Bonita Beach Road. The city included all of Lovers Key/Carl E. Johnson State Park as well as Fort Myers Beach.
According to Early Estero, a historical book by local author Quentin Quesnell, the city was about 110 square miles and was geographically the largest city in Florida at the time.
City officials created a town seal, as well as the slogan: The Guiding Star City. Koreshan Charles Graves was the mayor, and there were nine aldermen serving as a type of city council.
Moving from the relative comforts of Chicago to a swampy and mostly undisturbed landscape was difficult for many Koreshans. Having machine shops with modern tools and building some of the largest structures in the county helped ease the transitional pains.
Koreshans were also aided by the ingenuity of Fort Myers inventors like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The famous engineering duo spent many weekends with the Koreshans sipping tea and reaping the rewards of some 200 communal workers.
The settlement was also a political powerhouse with major influence on local, state and national elections.
That political savviness, however, fueled the end of the city after Koreshans voted for a republican president when the majority of Florida residents regularly favored democratic candidates.
“(The Koreshans) voted for (Republican) Teddy Roosevelt, and that upset everybody in Lee County,” Straub said. “The people working in groves were starting to get scared, and they didn’t want the Koreshans running the town. But it was really Lee County officials who got it dissolved.”
The incorporation was retracted in May of 1907 at the request of Lee officials. After that, Estero was only a fire district, although Koreshans continued to promote the defunct city and its political leaders.
By 1908 the settlement was in decline after Teed’s death. It is thought by many historians that Teed died from wounds inflicted during a fisticuffs with sheriff’s officers and elected officials in downtown Fort Myers.
Estero may have been south Lee’s first city, but incorporation was lost on many residents for almost 100 years.
Virtually no one in the community heralded the former town until Straub and others uncovered incorporation documents a few years ago.
Estero native Evelyn Horne worked for the Koreshans for nearly 60 years and said the political past rarely came up during her many decades at the settlement.
“I don’t know if we ever thought about it,” Horne said.
Still, the Centennial is a big event for Straub, Horne and many others who cherish Estero’s modest but unique history.
Horne said her only dilemma now is to decide what dish to bring to the November celebration.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” said Horne. “I’m wondering what I’ll do, the chili cook-off or the fish chowder.”