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Edison Ford 'Holiday Nights' evokes memories of Christmases past

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Everyone knows that Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent light bulb. So it probably comes as little surprise that he also created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, he strung these strands around the outside of his Menlo Park laboratory, where they were enjoyed by railroad passengers traveling by the laboratory at night.

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Two years later, Edison's friend and partner in the Edison Illumination Company (the predecessor of today's Con Edison) put together the very first strand of electric Christmas lights. Edward H. Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs the size of walnuts and wound them around the Christmas tree in his Manhattan home. A Detroit newspaper reporter wrote a story about the tree, which also rotated, and Johnson became the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.

Three years later, in 1895, President Grover Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs as well. But until General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights for sale in 1903, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. The wiring for electric lights was very expensive and required the services of a wireman (the precursor of the present-day electrician). According to the Library of Congress, it would have cost more than $2,000 in today's dollars to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights prior to 1903.

San Diego in 1904, Appleton, Wisconsin in 1909, and New York City in 1912 were the first recorded instances of the use of outdoor Christmas lights in the United States, but they did not become in vogue until 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the White House. After that, strings of Christmas lights found their way into use in places other than Christmas trees. Over the ensuing decades, people and businesses began stringing lights along mantles, doorways, windows, rafters, roof lines and porch railings. And now the places where people are likely to place colored lights is limited only by their imagination and budgets.

With this as background, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates offers Southwest Florida residents and visitors with a beautiful venue in which to celebrate the holiday season and commemorate the role played by favorite winter resident Thomas Edison and his friend and colleague Edward H. Johnson is establishing our Christmas season tradition of decorating homes, inside and out, with multi-colored lights. But the Estates do not merely place lights on Seminole Lodge, The Mangoes and the associated caretaker's cottages, Ford's garage, the bath house and other outlying buildings. All decorations are from the period beginning with Thomas Edison's return to Fort Myers in 1914 and his death in 1931.

Any time is a good time to visit the Edison Ford Winter Estates. Whether you have a penchant for history or just want to savor a touch of nostalgia Edison-Ford style, strolling the grounds and peeking inside Seminole Lodge, The Mangoes, the museum and botanical laboratory is interesting, fun and a relaxing break from the strains, stresses and pressures of living in a high-tech, information overload age. And the fervor and heartfelt enthusiasm with which docents like Jim and Nancy Owens share factually-accurate stories about the inventors, their spouses, the buildings and grounds is contagious. In no time at all, even the most casual of visitors begins to feel like an insider - someone who not only knows little-known anecdotes about Edison, Ford and their famous friends, but what it was like to have lived in the day, to have basked in the glow, in the genius, in the creative vortex that Edison created in his winter estate on the banks of the Caloosahatchee.

But visiting the Estates during Holiday Nights is even more special because it's an unparalleled opportunity to walk individually or with your kids or grandchildren back in time. To Christmas Past. To the Christmases of our youth and our parents' youth, and that of their parents too. Holiday Nights extends all the way to January 4. But why wait? Go tonight. Get there early. Take a guided tour. And sit awhile on the porch at either Seminole Lodge or The Mangoes. Sit long and quietly enough, and you'll swear you can feel Tom and Mina or Henry and Clara stretching their legs alongside you.

The Edison Ford is normally open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., but through January 4, 2014, the Estates are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. nightly (except Christmas Eve, when the Estates close at 2 p.m., and Christmas Day, when the Estates are closed all day.)

The Edison Ford is the winner of the 2009 National Stewardship Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is an official project of “Save America’s Treasures” at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Florida Historic Landmark and a National Register Historic Site. USA Today has selected Edison Ford Holiday Nights as a top 10 historic home to visit during the holidays. The annual Edison Ford Holiday Nights event is celebrating 38 years in Southwest Florida. For additional information call 239-334-7419 or visit the website at


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