A cult thrived along a Florida river. Did their settlement survive Hurricane Ian?

Miami Herald/November 3, 2022

By Grethel Aguila

It looks like any other state park. There are picnic tables, hiking trails, campgrounds. But this is not any other state park. A cult once called this place home. Koreshan State Park, 135 acres along the Estero River near Fort Myers, preserves several of the cult’s buildings, and all of the history of a group of people who thought of the world in a different way. The Koreshans, a late-1800s religious cult, believed immortality could be achieved through celibacy, community and equality. They also believed the earth was hollow and that they lived on the inner surface.

The group — not related to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas — is no longer around. The last member died in 1981 and is buried on the grounds. But the Koreshan legacy survives at the Southwest Florida park, which survived Hurricane Ian’s path of destruction.

Like much of the surrounding area, the park took a hit from the hurricane. On Sept. 28, Ian mowed over trees and vegetation, and storm surge washed over the grounds, said Alexandra Kuchta, press secretary for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The park reopened to visitors on Oct. 19, Kuchta said, but some areas are still closed because of ongoing cleanup.

While the historic settlement has reopened, several of the structures have damaged roofs and floors, Kuchta said. She said the picnic area and trails are “expected to reopen soon.”

The Koreshan settlement has been hit by a hurricane before. In 2017, Hurricane Irma knocked down the monkey puzzle trees, flora native to parts of Chile and Argentina.


So, who were the Koreshans?

In 1894, founder Cyrus Teed, who viewed himself as the new messiah, and his followers settled along the Estero River, where they planned to pioneer a New Jerusalem in Florida’s wilderness. The cult started in New York City in the 1870s and also had a presence in Chicago and San Francisco.

“He had an appearance from an angel when he was aged 30 and the angel told him that he was sent to redeem humanity,” Lyn Millner, a journalism professor at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University, told WINK News when discussing her book on the cult, “The Allure of Immortality.”

The Estero community, which boasted more than 250 residents at its peak, built a closed-off city that included a bakery, printing house, dining hall, store and a power plant. The settlement opened as a state park in 1967.

The Koreshans grew non-native plants, most notably bamboo, throughout their commune. Some were used for sustenance but many to glam up the colony.

The cult, which valued science and education, adopted the Fairbanks-Morse Engine in 1925 to power the village without a need for oil lamps. They even offered electricity to Estero residents.

A few of the cult’s strange artifacts survive at Koreshan State Park, including a model of the “rectilineator,” an apparatus they used to “prove” the earth was concave.

But as the years went by, the Koreshans’ population dwindled, with the last follower deeding the park to the state in 1961. Teed, the group’s founder, died in 1908.

In the 1920s, the founder’s coffin was washed out to sea — during a hurricane.

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