November 16, 2003

Inside-Out World

A major restoration of buildings by the Estero Historical Society recalling the 1894 Koreshan Unity community - whose members believed the world was hollow and we lived inside - will be opened to visitors Tuesday (Nov. 18) at 10 a.m.  

Michael Heare, Koreshan State Park specialist, says the centerpiece is the three-story Planetary Court. This housed seven chosen women comprising the Planetary Chamber - a governing council that referred serious matters to Teed and a co-director named  Victoria Gracia.  

Eleven buildings - most including interior furnishings -- remain on 18 acres at the corner of U.S. 41 and Corkscrew Road between Ft. Myers and Bonita Springs.

The structures provide a look back into Florida frontier life more than a century ago -- and progress until the unique group disbanded in 1960 with four, aged members.  

 The communal religious group -- numbering 250 members at its height in 1904-8 -- was patterned after the more famous Pennsylvania Quakers.

Koreshans grew oranges and avocados for market, raised chickens and fished extensively for their own food.

They operated a score of support enterprises ranging from a general store for the area, a bakery that produced 600 loaves of bread daily for sale, jelly cannery and sawmill.  

In addition to unorthodox astronomy, adherents observed celibacy believing it was the route to personal immortality.

Founder and leader of Koreshan Unity was Cyrus Reed Teed, born 1839 in Delaware County, N.Y. A well-researched biography has been compiled by Catherine Ohnemus, curator for the Koreshan Museum.

Teed was an alchemist practicing "eclectic medicine" at Utica, N.Y. He was inspired by science and the religious fervent following the Civil War. In 1869, he experienced a "divine illumination."

In this vision, he claimed to see God in the form of a beautiful woman who revealed to him the secrets of the universe and said he would interpret the symbols of the Bible for the scientific age.

A decade later, Teed joined the Shakers at Lebanon, N.Y. for a couple of years. Then he established a Koreshan communal home in Moravia, N.Y., in 1880 and assumed the name Koresh - Hebrew pronunciation for Cyrus.

The latter is mentioned in the Christian Bible (Isaiah 44:28) as the shepherd who would fulfill the purposes of God.

Financial hardship and religious persecution drove the little Koreshan band to Chicago where membership grew to 110. He aspired to establish a "New Jerusalem" in Florida.

Tweed scouted Pine Island and found land there expensive. He returned to Chicago but left some Koreshan literature at the Punta Rassa telegraph/Cuban undersea cable station.

There it was read by a homesteader named Gustav Damkolder who was impressed. He donated his 320 acres along the Estero River to the Koreshan society in 1894.

 New Jerusalem

The first Koreshan arrivals built a log house with a roof of thatched palmettos. Teed mapped out a grid of streets in a mystic pattern of circles and squares. He was entranced with the figure seven - the number of planets then known.

Within two years the Koreshans had constructed a three-story community hall for shared dining, a dormitory for women and the Masters House.

The latter included separate bedrooms for Teed and Victoria Gracia whom he chose from the membership to be co-leader as recognition of the equality of women. Teed's wife did not follow him into Koreshan.

A Planetary Hall included a meeting hall and private rooms for the seven women comprising a governing council for ordinary matters regarding the congregation.

 An Arts Hall auditorium featured plays and concerts by Koreshans often attended by neighbors.

Neighboring settlers also patronized the Koreshan enterprises that eventually included a general store, post office, printing shop, boat works, steam laundry, concrete mix plant, machine shop and a gas station for the first automobiles. They generated their own electricity from 1916 to 1940.

Everyone worked according to ability. Oranges and other tropical fruits were cultivated for processing to jellies for northern markets.

Celibacy was a guiding principle as a means of achieving spiritual immortality. Men lived in small, log cabins. Women other than Victoria Garcia and the governing council lived in a large dormitory.

When a married couple joined, they were separated -- men living in individual log houses and women in the dormitory.

Inasmuch as celibacy precluded children, only a few minors accompanied widows and widowers into Koreshan. They did have a "school" room in the founder's home that children attended on a regular basis.

 Hollow Earth

The conception of a hollow earth was a popular theory before Teed took it up.

Astronomer Edmund Halley, of Halley's comet fame, published a paper in 1692 postulating that the earth is a hollow shell with three inner spheres separated by atmosphere.

According to science historian Donald E. Simanek, Halley even suggested that each sphere "might support life."

Teed elaborated on the hollow earth theory in his 1898 book, "The Cellular Cosmogony." Simanek summarizes Teed's universe as a hollow cell of solid rock 8,000 miles in diameter. We live and walk on the spherical inner surface of this cell.

For a more detailed account of Teed's fascination with cosmogony, see Simanek's fascinating website www.lhup.edu.

An early member of Koreshan Unity in Chicago was Ulysses Grant Morrow, newspaper editor, writer, poet, inventor and geodesist. Teed called on him to furnish "scientific proof" of the shape of the earth.

Morrow undertook the task with the now famous Naples Experiment.

Previous experiments with the Illinois Drainage Canal in Chicago and on the shore of Lake Michigan encouraged Morrow to devise a method of measuring the curvature of the earth exemplified by the surface of a large body of water.

A straight, 4-mile, north-south beach near Naples provided a site for an ambitious experiment. He designed four "rectilineators" each precisely 12 feet long and perfectly square and level.

Teed commissioned the Pullman Railroad Car Company to build the mahogany and brass contraptions. One has survived is on display at the Koreshan State Park.

On the beach, Morrow bolted his rectilineators together and positioned them with a plumb bob and spirit level to furnish a reference.

Surveying data was computed each quarter-mile and compared to the water level of the Gulf of Mexico in caissons that dampened wave action.

If the beach were on the inside of a ball, the survey live would tend up. If the earth were round, the line would tend down.

The survey line tended down which inadvertently allowed Morrow to compute the correct circumference of the earth at 25,000 miles.

However, when Morrow corrected "human errors" in reading water levels in the caissons, he proved to his and Teed's satisfaction that we did, indeed, live inside a ball.

Fade To History

"Ironically, the mounting prosperity of the community inadvertently brought about its decline," says Ohnemus.

"In 1904, the Koreshans sought to incorporate the Unity and surrounding area into a city. However, landowners there (and Fort Myers) rejected the idea, fearing an increased tax burden.

"A compromise was made that left opposing landowners unincorporated while the Unity and some other lands totaling 110 square miles became the town of Estero.

"Estero's incorporation entitled the town to county road tax funds. This was compounded by prejudicial views of the surrounding society toward the Koreshans' communistic way of life.

"In addition, the Koreshans formed the Progressive Liberty Party to run against the area's established Democrats in the election of 1906.

"This resulted in an altercation on Oct. 13 between several Koreshan men, including Teed, and some citizens of Fort Myers.

"Soon after the fight, Teed's health began to fail. It was generally accepted among his followers that his death on Dec. 22, 108, could be attributed to the injuries he received in the brawl," writes Ohnemus.

In Teed's 1869 "illumination," he was assured that upon his physical death he would re-incarnate immortal. Hopeful Koreshans waited for his resurrection on Christmas Day.

The county health officer on Dec. 27 ordered Teed's decomposing body be interred. A large, stone mausoleum was constructed on the bank of the Estero River.

A rowboat was tied near by to give Teed a choice of walking back or rowing to his faithful flock. A few years later a hurricane washed the mausoleum and its contents out to sea.

"Disillusionment took a toll on the Unity," writes Ohnemus. "Younger members began to leave. About three-dozen of the faithful remained to sustain the community.

"In 1940, 35 elderly members remained. Hedwig Michel, a Jewish refuge from Nazi Germany arrived to reorganize the Koreshan General Store and add a restaurant and gas station.

"By 1960, only four Koreshan members were left. Ms. Michel offered the 300-acre 'Utopia' to the state of Florida."

 

Author: Lindsey Williams

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Cutlines

1 - 4 col. two story building with cupola

Photos courtesy of Koreshan State Park

[ This restored Planetary Hall, photographed this week by Michael Heare, will be open to the public Tuesday morning. It was a meeting hall and residence of seven women chosen to govern the celibate Koreshan Unity community in 1894. The brother of one the women lived in the cupola as the "building watcher." [

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2 - 4 col. - group

[ Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Reed Teed and Victoria, center, pose with Koreshan leaders on the steps of the Planetary Hall. Note ceremonial guards at each side holding battle-axes. ]

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3- 4 col - line of people and posts

[ The surveying party that measured the curvature of an inside-out world assembles on a beach at Naples with Ulysses Grant Morrow's "rectilinerator." He is center with creased hat. ]

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4 -  3 col. cabin in the woods

[ The restored cabin of Gustav Damkolder who donated his homestead to the Koreshan Unity Community is typical of those built for men only. Women slept in a dormitory for companionship. ]

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photos of mausoleum and store front are optional

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