News | February 18, 2016

CommunityLearningNews

Library exhibit spotlights famous local residents

“Uncommon Friends: The James D. Newton Collection,” a new exhibition in the FGCU Library, documents a Fort Myers man’s connections with the city’s most famous winter resident, Thomas Edison, and several titans of industry in the early 20th century.

The exhibit opens Thursday, Feb. 25 with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. in Library Room 322. It continues through April 22.

James Newton was a Fort Myers real estate developer who became friends with Thomas Edison.
James Newton was a Fort Myers real estate developer who became friends with Thomas Edison.

Newton (1905-99) was a prominent local entrepreneur whose memoir — “Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh” — recounts his friendship with these visionary figures. The young real estate developer’s fateful meeting with Edison’s wife, Mina, altered the course of his life, according to Melissa VandeBurgt, head of Archives, Special Collections, & Digital Initiatives.

Newton was the developer of the Edison Park neighborhood off McGregor Boulevard, and he commissioned a classically styled female figure for the subdivision’s grand entrance, which happened to lie directly across the street from the Edisons’ winter home. Although the stone statue had not yet been unveiled, a group of women reportedly sneaked a peek under the tarps and spread the apparently shocking news that the feminine form was stark naked.

“Mina summoned the head developer, and therefore Newton landed at her doorstep,” VandeBurgt says. “She insisted the statue be clothed.”

And so it was. The sculptor draped his creation, and the townswomen were placated. The much-photographed, modestly robed Grecian maiden still stands at McGregor Boulevard and Llewellyn Drive, flanked by obelisk-capped stanchions, pouring water from an urn into a basin at her feet.

Photograph of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone from the collection of James Newton.
Photograph of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone from the collection of James Newton.

And thus, Newton entered the Edison orbit and met the inventor’s distinguished associates, several of whom also maintained winter homes in Fort Myers.

“His friendships with the likes of Edison and Ford would inspire him throughout his adventurous life, including his time enlisted in the U.S. Army and his subsequent involvement with the Moral Re-Armament movement,” VandeBurgt says. “Much like their influence on the 20th century, these men would have lasting impact on Newton’s life until his death in 1999 at 94.”

The Uncommon Friends Foundation, established in 1993, is dedicated to lifelong character building among today’s youth and business leaders, and the historic preservation of Newton’s papers, photographs and artifacts in the City of Fort Myers. In 2012, the Uncommon Friends Foundation and Florida Gulf Coast University Library partnered to digitally preserve and provide public access to this captivating collection of materials, which can be viewed on DigitalFGCU.

The exhibit on display on the library’s third floor is a curated sampling of the Newton collection. Viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

For more information, contact VandeBurgt at (239) 590-7658 or Kaleena Rivera at (239) 590-7506.