Koreshan State Historic Site
The Koreshan State Historic Site is a very unique and interesting place to visit. It is the preserved site of a 19th century religious community with 11 original buildings, Victorian gardens, a nature trail along the Estero River, canoeing and camp sites in a 200-acre park.
Self-guided tour leaflets and information boards are available, along with volunteer docents, for those who want to tour the grounds at their own pace. However, I can recommend taking a 90-minute ranger-led tour for those wanting to delve into the beliefs of Dr. Cyrus Teed and understand the day-to-day operations of his “New Jerusalem”.
Koreshanity began in Estero in 1893 and lasted until 1982 when the last member died. Along with tours, the historic estate hosts the Estero Concert Series which attracts professional musicians and world class opera singers to perform in the atmospheric Art Hall. It also offers re-enactments and ghost walks at Halloween which are well worth attending.
Koreshan is located at the intersection of US 41 and Corkscrew Road at Estero.
GPS Coordinates: 26.433257, -81.814653
From I-75, take exit 123 (Corkscrew Road) and head west 2 miles.
Cross US 41 and continue along Corkscrew Road about ½ mile to reach the entrance to the park.
What to Expect on a Historic Walking Tour
At the entrance and ranger station, pay the admission and book a place on the next guided tour if you want a ranger-led experience of the historic site and gardens. The tour meets just off the car park outside the Art Hall, where a huge swamp mahogany provides shade from the Florida sun.
The tour begins in the beautiful Art Hall which is still used for public concerts as in the days of the Koreshan Unity Settlement. The hall is filled with artworks by former Koreshan members and by Dr. Teed’s son, Douglas Arthur Teed, who became a well-known landscape and portrait artist in New York. The most remarkable exhibit is the globe which shows the world as we know it, but on the inner shell of the earth’s outer atmosphere, as Dr. Teed believed it was.
We followed our knowledgable volunteer guide, Mila, along the crushed shell paths passing Orchid Trees in full bloom, a Sabal Palm with cacti growing on the trunk, and finally reached the cherry orchard just outside the Planetary Court building.
Here we learnt more about Dr. Teed and his “illumination” in 1869 which led him to Chicago and then to Estero to found his Koreshan Unity, the word “Koreshan” being Persian for “shepherd”. His new order followed a mix of Old Testament, Far Eastern ideas, reincarnation and Teed’s own scientific beliefs. His ultimate aim was to define the universe through science.
About 3,000 members lived outside the settlement with their families while up to 300 others chose to join the religious order at Koreshan, which required giving their property to the community and living celibate lives onsite. The followers were hard-working people and the community was self-sufficient, even providing services to the outside community. They valued education and the arts and had their own drama group and 17-piece orchestra which performed public concerts.
The three-story Planetary Court is a fine example of Georgia Foursquare architecture, built in 1904. The cream clapboard house with its shady front porch was home to the Seven “Sisters” who provided much of the original finance Teed required to establish his community and saw to the day-to-day business of the settlement. Each lady had her own simply furnished room and a caretaker looked after them and lived at the top of the house, in the cupola. We admired the ornate craftsman-built staircase made of beautiful date pine, and learned that there were no baths or kitchen in the house as the Sisters ate formally each evening at the communal dining area.
All the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, but there was never a church on site. We peeped inside the bakery which once made up to 600 loaves a day – the yeast bread was in great demand locally as it was so much tastier than the local cornbread. Other buildings include the two-room Vesta Newcombe building, final home to Vesta who arrived at the community as a child and lived here until her death in her 90s. We also saw the industrial area with a huge oil-driven generator which powered band saws and machinery in the neighboring machine shops as well as providing power to the surrounding outlying farms.
The Koreshan Unity was totally dependent upon Dr. Teed and after his death in 1908 many followers became disillusioned when his teachings about his resurrection were not fulfilled. Eventually the Koreshan community, its archives and substantial acreage were donated to the state of Florida, in 1961.
The final part of the tour took us through the gardens where there are many specimen trees sourced by Dr. Teed on his travels all over the world. Look for the huge Australian Monkey Puzzle Tree, the exotic flowers on the Bombax (red silk cotton tree), the Ear Tree and the African Sausage Tree. Fruit trees, pecans, magnolias and lovely red pineapples with their exotic pink fruits can be enjoyed as well as more common azaleas and palms.
Landscaped mounds make a popular place for the burrowing Gopher Tortoises and two decorative bridges were an interesting highlight. Massive Washingtonian Palms planted in 1896 line the Grande Promenade which is visible from the Bamboo Landing. Here we saw many canoeists paddling in the clear shallow waters of the Estero River, which was the main access to the settlement before US41 was paved. This area is the start of the Nature Trail, a pleasant 30-minute walk along the river, through immense bamboo stands and the picnic area to end at the boat ramp. Having done it, I would recommend going out and back along the river trail which is a much more pleasant than returning on the park roads. Otters, herons, bobcats, foxes, alligators, snakes and a variety of birds of prey all make their home in the park.
Our tour ended at the Founders House, built for Cyrus Teed in 1896 and surprisingly comfortably furnished. There is an interesting display of old photographs of the Koreshan community in its heyday and an informative PBS film gives more background detail to this short-lived religious sect.
Guided Walking Tours of the Historic Site
January – March these guided tours take place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily
April – December at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays only
Guided tours can also be scheduled in advance on request.