No longer Estero’s best-kept secret, Koreshan State Historic Site bustles with activity each season, all with the goal of sharing the unique history of its early settlers and their contributions to local development and culture. “Estero is on the map because of the Koreshan settlement,” says Janet Murphy, committee chair for the park’s wildly popular Ghost Walk events. “I really believe they would be thrilled to know we are bringing their story to the greater community.” Ghost Walk has nothing to do with spirits and ghouls.
A cast of 23 actors and support crew of more than 40 bring “Master Koresh” Cyrus Teed and his followers to life during two consecutive weekends each year. About 560 visitors are expected to take the Ghost Walk and learn about Koreshan life by moonlight. The paths are given a mystical glow by lit luminaries as visitors move from scene to scene while listening in on the Koreshan conversation.
“I think the Ghost Walks are going to be even more phenomenal than what they have been in the past,” says Park Services Specialist Mike Heare, who oversees a host of happenings at Koreshan this season. “We’re verifying everything in the script for accuracy. Parts of it are hysterically funny, and it’s all historically accurate.” Costumes also have been enhanced for authenticity, Murphy reports. She portrays Vesta Newcomb, one of the earliest settlers, relocating from Chicago in the late 1800’s with her mother and younger brother. “She came at the age of 15 and died there,” Murphy says.
“She never left. She never married. She was a teacher of the children, worked in the kitchen and ran a linotype machine for printing.” The Ghost Walk represents a tremendous volunteer effort, and proceeds go back into the preservation of the historic settlement and park grounds. “It’s interesting, it’s educational, and it’s entertaining all at once,” says Murphy. “There’s really nothing like this around.” She recommends guests buy their tickets in advance (the event sells out each year), wear good walking shoes and “bring a little sense of adventure.” Those who prefer the daylight experience can join an Afternoon Tea in the 1905 Koreshan Art Hall.
“The tables used for the teas are original Koreshan tables used in the dining room,” says Kate Griffith, who is chairing Afternoon Teas and the annual Taste of History Luncheon Feb. 22. “Master Koresh will be around for the luncheon, as well as the ladies of the Planetary Court, who will be your servers.” When people initially hear about this utopian society, they sometimes balk at the notion. While Teed’s theory about the universe existing within a hollow sphere seems comical today, the Koreshans are credited with bringing culture and industrial improvements to the swampland of early Estero.
“They were a cult, but what they brought down to this area was quite a bit of sophistication and art and the love of knowledge,” Griffith says. The Koreshan settlement topped out at about 250 when Teed died in 1908 from injuries sustained during a fight with the local sheriff. These early settlers showed determination and perseverance to create a self-sustaining yet culturally giving society, Griffith says. The teas and other events are opportunities to step into local history.
“You get a sense of the elegance of the period,” Griffith explains. “You get an idea of what these people were.” During the luncheon, guests will enjoy classical music played on the original 1885 Steinway grand piano, which the Koreshans brought with them from Chicago. It has 85 keys instead of the now-standard 88 keys and still plays beautifully. The Steinway also takes center stage for the popular Estero Concert Series at Koreshan Art Hall. Classical musicians Bella Gutshtein and Boris Sandler, of the Russian Cultural Center of Naples, bring top talent to Koreshan for chamber music performances throughout the season.
The Art Hall provides an intimate venue with amazing acoustics in a lush natural setting abounding in history. “This is a slow place,” says Gutshtein. “It takes us back 100 years. When you come here, you feel very calm.” Concerts are scheduled monthly from January through May. The first two are already sold out. March brings the music of Beethoven and Janacek. April’s concert features Borodin and Shostakovich. Both Gutshtein and Sandler will join the artists performing that night in a piano quintet, with Sandler playing violin and Gutshtein on the 1885 Steinway.
The couple will play again for the final concert of the series, which features the music of Mendelssohn and Arensky on May 9. Tickets are $40 each or $114 for the trio of concerts. Also ongoing at Koreshan this season are the historical kayaking adventures offered by College of Life Foundation master kayakers Peg Egan and Brandy Minchew. Trips are offered to Mound Key, Telegraph Creek, Estero Bay and along the Estero River, launching from Koreshan Park. “I love to tell people about our local history and how amazing it is,” Minchew says. Visitors also may enjoy the natural beauty of the botanicals planted by the Koreshans during a farmer’s markets every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., offering an array of fresh produce, prepared food items, handmade jewelry, local honey and more.
Koreshan also will host its annual art show, “Great Art in a Great Park,” on Valentine’s Day. A vintage car show will be March 7, and the annual Antique Engine and Quilt Show is March 21. Additionally, volunteers conduct special programs throughout the week, enhancing the value of park admission. There are guided plant tours on Tuesdays, industrial area demonstrations on Wednesdays and Sundays, and cooking programs on Thursdays and Fridays. “When you leave here, you have a much clearer sense of who the Koreshans were and a sense of history for the area and what they brought,” Griffith says. A complete listing of events at Koreshan State Historic may be found at www.floridastateparks.org/koreshan.