Utopia revisited

A state park that preserves the spirit of Koresh (not that Koresh)

click to enlarge THE KORESHANS' KEEPER: Michael Heare has worked at the state historic site in Estero for 13 years. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
THE KORESHANS' KEEPER: Michael Heare has worked at the state historic site in Estero for 13 years.

The first thing state park specialist Michael Heare wants you to know is that the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero has nothing ("absolutely nothing") to do with David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and that hairy incident in Waco, Texas.

Once that's understood, Heare tells me, you can enjoy the century-old history behind the failed utopia dreamed up by the Civil War-era doctor and self-anointed messiah, Cyrus R. Teed.

While speeding through the scrub forest in his state-issued golf cart, Heare enthusiastically points out the features that bring nearly 60,000 people into this Lee County park each year — the private camp grounds (consistently voted one of the top 100 campsites in the country, according to Reserve America), the abundant wildlife (from bobcats to manatees) and the lush vegetation planted by the early settlers of Estero (including a small forest of giant bamboo).

"People come in for camping not knowing the history end of [the park] and vice versa," he explains, precariously avoiding thorny vines, snake cacti and potholes as we bomb around on the trails.

But the centerpiece of the state park is a town from another century, the legacy of a small group of city folk who seceded from the modern world.

The roots of the Koreshan State Historic Site go back to the 1860s and the laboratory of Cyrus R. Teed, a Civil War veteran and New York physician. As the story goes, one night while studying in his laboratory, Teed fell into a deep trance and an angelic woman appeared. This woman, Teed would later preach to the masses, revealed the universe's secrets and anointed him as the second Messiah.

Inspired by his divine illumination, Teed quit his physician practice, changed his first name from Cyrus to its Hebrew translation, Koresh, and traveled between Chicago and New York giving lectures. He preached his newfound knowledge of reincarnation, equity among men and women and the bizarre notion of a hollow earth containing the planets, stars and sun.

Although most people weren't swayed by Teed's views, the charismatic orator won a few hundred converts and, following in the footsteps of other fringe religious groups in the 1800s, Teed searched for a place to start a colony of believers. In 1894, a German man from Estero offered to sell Teed 300 acres of land just south of Fort Myers for $200. Teed agreed and brought a dedicated group of 24 Koreshans to Estero. He intended to tame the wilds of South Florida and create a "New Jerusalem," which Teed hoped would eventually encompass 34 miles and 10 million people.

He never got close to achieving his dream. The Koreshan settlement peaked in 1905 with 250 members and 50 buildings, including a printing shop and a sawmill. The settlers built boats and generated their own electricity. "They were basically a self-contained community," Heare says.

All that is left of the Koreshan Unity Settlement now are 19 buildings, most rehabbed by rangers and volunteers. Heare unlocks the "Founder's House," a two-story pine structure built for Teed in 1896 and filled with photos of posing Koreshans. Teed is present in almost every picture — a clean-shaven man with broad shoulders and large, fierce eyes.

Teed had only a few rules for adherents of Koreshanity: no alcohol, no tobacco and no opium. Settlement leaders (seven men, seven women and Koresh) were expected to remain celibate. And according to Teed's writings, the Koreshans were early environmentalists, refusing to dump waste in Estero River or the Gulf of Mexico. Teed envisioned a conveyer belt that took trash to a dump several miles away where it would be reduced to fertilizer.

"It's my belief, when we hear the word cult, people automatically think of something negative," Heare says, walking up the stairs of the Planetary Court, a two-story building where the female leaders of the Koresh settlement lived. "These people didn't have sacrifices. I've never heard of any violence. I've never read about anyone being forced to stay."

Park rangers have recreated the settlement's grid much as it would have looked 100 years ago. Mango, avocado and litchi nut trees still line the gravel roads that lead to the settlement's most important buildings: the 102-year-old Art Hall, where the Koreshans put on concerts and plays attended by luminaries like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford; the bakery that could produce up to 600 loaves of self-rising bread a day, and a steam and diesel engine room that supplied electricity to the entire community.

The Koreshan Unity Settlement flourished until 1906. That year, as political tensions increased between the Koreshans and the local Democratic political machine, Teed was severely beaten during a political argument in Fort Myers. Two years later, he died from complications related to his injuries. The Koreshans, believing their leader was the Messiah and would rise up in six days, put him in a bathtub and patiently awaited his return. But after seven days, county officials ordered Teed's body buried. A large chunk of Koreshans left, disillusioned.

The settlement, despite a few brief resurgences during the Great Depression and World War II, continued to decline. By 1961, only four Koreshans remained, including Hedwig Michel, a Jewish woman who fled Germany during World War II. Under her leadership, the Koreshans donated 300 acres to the state under the condition the settlement would be preserved. The rest of Koreshan-owned land, documents and other artifacts are controlled by the nonprofit College of Life Foundation, which lies across U.S. 41 from the state park. The foundation has kept most of the archives private, but Heare says they plan to release them soon.

Michel continued to direct restoration efforts until her death in 1982. (Her tomb sits near the old bakery; she is the only Koreshan buried on the site.)

Despite a plethora of journals, letters and photographs, Heare says there is still much to learn about the Koreshans' history. Every few months, Heare says he meets a relative of someone who lived in the settlement and fits another piece to the puzzle.

"It really blows me away how much I know," Heare says, "but it really blows me away what I don't know."

But the biggest threat to the vestiges of Koreshanity is not natural disaster (hurricanes in recent years have spared the aging buildings) or state budget cuts. It's the rapid development overtaking all of Florida's natural areas.

Recently, the College of Life Foundation sold 225 of their 250 acres to pay off back taxes. Other landowners with Koreshan-era buildings on their properties have sold their land. Heare says the state recently bought a historic house and grounds from a couple living across the river from the state park.

"They felt strongly that the land should be preserved with all the development around here," he says.

As thunderclouds gather overhead, Heare heads back to the employee lounge, formerly the Koreshan Post Office. He says despite some of the bizarre aspects of Koreshanity, its adherents have much to teach the modern world.

"People in Florida can see how this group of city people came down and built their own city," he says. "It shows how people working together can make positive things happen."

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