Above Us Only Asia: Koreshan State Historical Park

January 16, 2018 — What if I told you that the sky above you is actually the interior of a giant hollow sphere and that the earth you’re standing on is its concave interior surface.

Sorry, I only have yellow pills for you.

I’ve always preferred Hollow Earthers to Flat Earthers. It’s just a lot more fun to think of civilizations beneath our feet than us flopping around on a wet dinner plate. But there’s one group that beats them both: The Koreshans and their Cellular Cosmogony. Their belief kind of upends me. Makes me dizzy.

I was in Florida, heading to the airport in Fort Myers, when I got a notification on my phone that my flight was delayed. Instead of spending the extra hour at an airport Burger King, my friend and I took the exit to Corkscrew Road in Estero to find a former religious commune with an extravagant idea about the universe.

All because of a New York doctor who shocked himself during an alchemy experiment in 1869.

His name was Dr. Cyrus Teed, and after that accident he believed he was a messiah, so he did Messiah Step #1: He started a religion. Well, first he renamed himself Koresh (Hebrew for Cyrus) because Koreshans sounds better than Teedites. His gospel was one of reincarnation, immortality, equality of the sexes, communism, and other ideas for making nineteenth century men and women gasp behind their handkerchiefs.

He also decided that if he was going to upend the world with his teachings, he might as well upend the universe, too. He decided that humans lived on the interior surface of a sphere 25,000 miles in circumference. That means from interior to interior, the universe was only 8,000 miles across. He also believed the sun we could see with our eyes was the reflection of a central sun in the middle of a sphere that alternated its dark side and light side to create night and day and that most astronomical phenomena were optical illusions. He believed (or conceived) that outside the 100-mile shell that we traipse across is nothingness, void, a null set. The universe is a comfortably bounded and cognizable one in Koreshanity. I think. Both the original text and everybody’s interpretation of it is hard to parse.

Do you want those yellow pills yet?

Even more weird, he believed that Florida was the Promised Land. In 1894, he gathered the adherents he had been accumulating in Chicago and headed down to Estero, Florida, where they set up a commune on a few hundred acres.

And they did pretty well, although they fell far short of the 8,000,000 population goal that Koresh predicted. At its height, the commune encompassed some 250 people living on thousands of acres of glorious concave surface working at all kinds of industry, including a power plant and a bakery and a sawmill and a printing press.

Today, it’s a state park that preserves about a dozen buildings and the strange, enclosed history of the Koreshans.

Exterior, Art Hall.

Interior, Art Hall.

It’s a beautiful park, full of palm trees and live oaks, right on the Estero River. The Koreshan sites are mostly clustered together in the historical section of the park by the entrance, so it’s an easy stroll around the property and through the buildings.

We didn't make it through all the buildings due to time, but we saw the big ones, like Art Hall, which was an auditorium full of original artifacts and furniture where the Koreshans would put on plays. The founder’s house, was cool, too, and included an exhibit on the time the group conducted the Koreshan Geodetic Survey of 1897 on a Naples beach to prove the inverted shape of the earth. We also checked out the Planetary Court, a sunny two-story dormitory where the Seven Sisters lived and governed the community. They were basically a matriarchy, despite their patriarchal messiah.

So how’d this spot of Estero go from a commune to a state park? Well, the immortal messiah died in 1908.

Exterior, Founder's Home.

Interior, Founder's Home.

Koresh’s followers, believing sincerely in his imminent resurrection, placed him in a tub a few days before Christmas, where he laid in the grimy Florida heat for days. As the body decomposed, children would ask about the weird colors and growths on their messiah’s body, to which the adults would explain that he was in the middle of a transformation. Which was true either way. Eventually, even the adults couldn’t swallow the tale, and at the insistence of the local authorities, they sadly buried Dr. Teed on an island and hoped whenever he resurrected he could get out on his own.

Planetary Court.

After that, naturally, the Koreshan numbers dwindled until in 1961, there were only four left, and they gave the land to the state. The last Koreshan was a woman named Hedwig Michel who died in 1982 at the age of 90. She’s actually buried at the commune, her grave adorned by a plaque attached to a chunk of rock. Today, the Koreshan religion lives on as the College of Life Foundation, which is an historical association dedicated to Southwest Florida generally and the Koreshans specifically.

Dr. Cyrus “Koresh” Teed never did rise from his grave. And at some point, even the earth that he had reconfigured in such a ballsy (so to speak) way gave up on him. The grave was destroyed during a hurricane, his coffin washed out to sea. His grave plaque (or possibly a reproduction of it, I never found out) can be seen at his house at the park.

As we explored the grounds, we talked to some of the rangers about their odd assignment, looked in awe at depictions of Koresh’s universe, scoured the river for alligators, and talked about how much Flat Earthers are in the news and how boring that idea is compared to Koresh’s.

And then went to catch a plane.

Which is not something you want to do after contemplating alternative cosmogonies.

I think I’ll have a couple of those yellow pills myself now.