Festival highlights life of controversial Koreshan cult

Hedwig Michel lived a unique life, fleeing Germany during World War II and taking over a utopian settlement in rural Southwest Florida.

Often referred to as “The Last Koreshan,” Michel was actually a fussy and hard-nosed businesswoman who took over a failing ideological community and rekindled its elderly and faltering membership. Her place in Koreshan history will be in the spotlight today as Estero celebrates its centennial with a festival at the Estero United Methodist Church at U.S. 41 and Lord’s Way. The parade begins at 11 a.m. The entertainments, booths, games and food will be available from noon to 5 p.m.

Michel became head of the Koreshan Unity, the corporate arm of the settlement, in 1960, and hoarded the community’s possessions and land until she died in 1982.

Considered by many to be a shrewd opportunist, Michel lived a life of luxury on the Koreshan grounds, driving a new Cadillac and traveling to Europe each year while many of the elderly Koreshans complained they didn’t have the bare necessities.

Bill Grace’s great-grandparents, John and Mary Grier, were part of the original Chicago Koreshans who came to live on the banks of the Estero River near the turn of the 20th century.

“They considered her to be an interloper,” Grace said. “And they considered Vesta (Newcomb) to be the last surviving Koreshan.”

The Koreshans were led by Cyrus Teed, a utopian preacher who professed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. Teed planned to turn Estero into a “New Jerusalem” with 10 million residents.

The settlement flourished in its early days, bringing electricity and modern printing presses to a remote and relatively unsettled Southwest Florida.

Unlike the majority of Koreshans who lived at the compound in the 1960s, Michel was an outsider who forced her way into the leadership role.

After securing her place as the legal figurehead, Michel later deeded more than 300 acres to the state in return for a life estate within the settlement and tax-free status.

There are countless stories documented in books, newspapers and verbal tales of Michel abandoning the settlement during storms and spending money on her personal comforts rather than food and utilities for elderly Koreshan members.

“She got a majority vote on the (Koreshan) board and (Koreshan Allen) Andrews filed a lawsuit against her for converting Unity assets to herself,” said Grace, himself a Fort Myers attorney.

The lawsuit eventually was dismissed and Michel became an autocrat in a settlement that was founded on communal beliefs and equality among all people and races.

Evelyn Horne worked for Michel from the time she took over the Unity until Michel’s death in 1982.

“Hedwig was a very strong, active person,” said Horne, 82. “It was a dictatorship.”

Over the years, Horne developed a loyalty to Michel that’s still evident when she talks about the fallen Koreshan leader today. Even though Michel ruled with strict guidelines and took little input from outsiders, Horne considers her to be a saving grace.

“She really brought the Unity out of debt when we were really in the hole,” Horne said.

Still, Horne doesn’t subscribe to “The Last Koreshan” title either. Like Grace and many historians, Horne says Newcomb was the real last Koreshan.

Horne’s deceased husband, George Horne, buried Michel on a plot in the middle of the Koreshan State Historic Site’s garden.

“The water was knee-deep where the (original) cemetery was when Hedwig died, and George couldn’t get down there to bury her,” Horne said. “So we got permission from the state to bury her in the garden.”

Her grave is fenced off and marked with a descriptive stone.

Grace, one of Michel’s biggest detractors, said Michel doesn’t deserve to rest in the center of the Koreshan settlement.

“I think it’s most inappropriate, especially when you consider how she let the other cemeteries go,” Grace said.

There are two Koreshan cemeteries still in existence. Neither burial ground was well kept under Michel’s tenure; and today the grave sites are in risk of being lost to decay.

Mimi Straub, president of the Estero Historical Society, knew Michel as well and said the former Koreshan leader left a fitting end to the settlement’s ruling class.

Straub moved to Estero more than 30 years ago and met Michel through a local civic group that Michel used to raise money for the Koreshans.

“We were the money-making workers for her operations,” Straub said. “She’d sell tickets to dinners, and that’s how she raised money.”

Having known Michel personally, Straub is able to look at the German’s story from the vantage point of an outsider. While many elderly Koreshans at the time complained about Michel, Estero residents like Straub say they saw her for what she was.

“Skip the religious part; she was an entrepreneur,” Straub said. “She rode around in a nice black Cadillac and the residents were complaining that they were starving.

“On the other side, they were old and tired when she took over, and they couldn’t have set up the (Koreshan General) store,” Straub continued. “She did.”

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