Dr. Cyrus R. Teed's utopian community of 200 followers relocated from New York to Florida in 1894. Dr. Teed took the name 'Koresh,' the Hebrew translation for Cyrus, meaning shepherd. The colonists believed that the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere. They conducted experiments that seemed to confirm their beliefs. The Koreshans built and operated a printing facility, boat works, cement works, sawmill, bakery, store and hostelry. Education, science and art also helped shape their community. After the death of Dr. Teed in 1908 at the age of 69, membership of his religious group began to decline. In 1961, the four remaining members deeded 305 acres of their land to the state of Florida as a park and memorial. The Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Koreshan's northern boundary is the Estero River. This tidal river gathers and meanders nearly two miles east of the Tamiami Trail to Estero Bay. The scenery is idyllic through the Koreshan historic settlement and makes easy paddling for beginning canoeists. Visitors can rent canoes, paddles and safety vests at the park's ranger station. The boat ramp easily accommodates crafts of up to 22 feet with a shallow draft. The Estero River, designated an Outstanding Florida Waterway, is posted idle speed for the three-and-a-half miles west to the mouth of the bay.
In 1869, a New York-born doctor named Cyrus Teed claimed he had received a 'divine illumination' in a vision. Through his vision, Teed believed that all spiritual life was unfolded to him by a divine deity. Preaching his new religion, Teed and a group of followers assembled in Chicago. Seeking a cleaner environment free from religious persecution, the group moved to Florida in 1894. Teed took the biblical name 'Koresh' and planned to construct his 'New Jerusalem' at what is now Estero. He hoped it would become a great city where people could come to practice his religion of Koreshanity. The first task was clearing the natural areas of dense palmetto thickets and scrub oaks so that several log cabins, dormitories and large common buildings could be erected. Fields were cleared for crops and pasturing animals. Hedwig Michel fled Nazi Germany during the Second World War to seek a safe and peaceful existence as a Koreshan. She became the President of the Koreshan Unity Foundation and in 1961 donated the settlement and the immediate 100 acres to the state of Florida to be preserved as a historic site. Ms. Michel remained involved with all activities impacting the settlement grounds until her death in 1982.
Since the mid-1960s, Koreshan State Historic Site and its campground have been a popular part of the Florida winter vacation tradition. The sites are located in stands of long leaf pine, sable palm and oak trees. A variety of shrubs, vines and palmetto create private settings in the 60-site campground. The cars and campers may have changed over the years, but a night in the great outdoors is still the same.
Since Cyrus Teed, 'Koresh,' founded his religion and began the construction of 'New Jerusalem' in Estero, people have been curious about the lifestyles of the followers who lived, worked and died there. Of the many buildings built from 1896 through 1908, only 11 remain. With the donation of the land and buildings to the management of the Florida Park Service came the responsibility to preserve, maintain and interpret the area as a historic site. Guided tours of the buildings and grounds are well attended. Teachers at elementary schools plan Florida history lessons to include field trips to the park. Florida Gulf Coast University students and professors find interesting materials for studies in history, religions and early industry.
In 1998, the park and the state of Florida celebrated the loan and pending transfer of archives from the Koreshan Unity Foundation to the park. Presenting the loan was Jo Bigelow, President of the Foundation. Receiving the loan was Fran Mainella, Former Director of the Florida Park Service. Also present were Park Manager Jeanne Parks and Assistant Manager Ezell Givens.