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Few cities of its size can lay claim to a history that includes Ponce de Leon, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But all three men were captivated by the area’s scenic beauty.
First explored by de Leon in 1513 and later in 1521, the barrier islands that are today part of Lee County were likely one of the areas the Spanish explorer made camp. Later Spanish settlers created temporary settlements including fishing camps along the coast, yet this area remained largely undeveloped.
The first wave of American settlers arrived in the region after Florida became a US Territory in 1821. The first Fort Myers was built on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River during the Seminole Indian Wars. It was named in honor of Colonel Abraham Myers, son-in-law of the commander of Fort Brooke in Tampa. Abandoned in 1858, the fort was reoccupied and fortified by the Union Army during the American Civil war in 1863. This southernmost engagement of the war occurred just across the river in 1865, and today is restaged by Civil War reenactors at the annual North Fort Myers Cracker Festival.
Today little remains of the original forts, which was raised after the war. The wood and stone of the fort was used to help construct the buildings in what is today Fort Myer. And by 1885 the village of Fort Myers began to experience a wave of growth, and this was the same year that American inventor Thomas Alva Edison first visited the area.
Clearly liking what he saw, Edison built a home and the Fort Myers Laboratory on the Calooshantchee River. He continued his research on rubber, and today many of his inventions are on display at a museum, which honors the man. Edison was a friend with auto magnet Henry Ford, who enjoyed visits to Fort Myer. It was fitting that the first Ford Car Dealership was open in Fort Myers in 1914.U.S. 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, opened in the 1920s and linked the growing city to Tampa and Miami. The city survived two devastating hurricanes, the first in 1921 and the second in 1926. Growth continued during World War II, and the city continued to grow following the war. It has become a popular tourist destination and a home away from home for many northern “snow birds.” Despite this growth the city retains its old charms in its historic districts.