The Mercury Tractor is on display at the museum at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Fla. These beautiful estates contain a historical museum (where the Mercury is located) that is part of a 21-acre botanical garden adjacent to the sites of the former winter homes of Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford.
Located beside the Caloosahatchee River in southwestern Florida, Edison first came to St. Augustine to get away. On a fishing trip he saw land that was for sale, from the water. The property had been a former farm owned by a large cattle operator, Samuel Summerlin.
Edison thought it perfect to build his retreat. He went on to build his home, his laboratory and a guest house. Years later his friend Ford also built a home on the property, and they are separated by a “friendship fence.”
Taking a tour of the estate is the best way to hear all the fascinating history that goes with this place where Edison worked winter after winter. A tour of the homes, laboratory and museum, along with the beautiful gardens, makes this a trip both collectors and their “better halves” will enjoy.
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates boast nine historic buildings, including Edison’s Botanic Research Laboratory and the Edison Ford Museum, which contains an impressive collection of inventions, artifacts and special exhibit galleries. Today, this is home to more than 1,700 plants, including champion trees, and continues Edison's tradition of an ever-changing botanical lab and garden.
In the museum, visitors can view some of Edison’s developments, such as the Electric Mercury Industrial Tractor. The tractor was used for more than 55 years at the Elgin Corrugated Box Co. in Elgin, Ill.
Unlike other tractors, it was powered by 30 Edison storage batteries. These batteries were made of steel, iron and nickel hydrate and iron oxide in an alkaline electrolyte. Edison’s storage battery was manufactured from the early 1900s to the 1960s.
Research shows that he spent a lot of time developing a storage battery that he intended for use in electric automobiles. The problem with the batteries was the need to replace chemicals, and then when automobiles were coming into popularity in the 1890s, the issue was the weight of lead acid batteries.
Edison overcame this eventually, with the use of alkaline electrolytes to create a lightweight battery; however, by the time it was ready, automobiles were already using an internal combustion engine. The batteries did find a variety of uses in industrial settings, like the Electric Mercury Industrial Tractor.
Information from the Edison Papers states the Edison Storage Battery Co. was organized in New Jersey on May 27, 1901, to develop, manufacture and sell his alkaline storage battery. It produced batteries for mining lamps, train lighting and signaling, submarines, electric vehicles and other uses.
The company had its own research department and sales force, but also sold batteries through separate sales companies, including the Edison Storage Battery Supply Co. and Miller Reese Hutchison, Inc. On June 30, 1932, the company ended its legal existence and became the Storage Battery Division of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. The division was sold to the Electric Storage Battery Co. (now Exide Technologies) on July 20, 1960.
Not much information was available about the Mercury Manufacturing Co. in Chicago that developed this cool tractor.
Collectors will also enjoy seeing some of the early Ford trucks. The guide on my tour shared that Ford is awarded credit for producing the pickup truck. She said he took the front of a car and added a box to the back like a wagon to be useful to families like his own. While Ford grew up on a farm and never wanted to farm, he kept the needs of the common man and the farmer in mind when developing products.
It is worth it to visit these estates multiple times if possible, because the collector will learn something new each time. It is almost too much information to take in in one visit. Log onto www.edisonfordwinterestates.org for details.
Readers with questions or comments for Cindy Ladage may write to her in care of this publication. Learn more of Cindy’s finds and travel in her blog, “Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl,” at http://travelingadventuresofafarmgirl.com