Gustave Damkohler, born 1825 in Blankenburg, Germany, was the first homesteader in Estero in 1882. He farmed along the Estero River, then known as “Mosquito Creek,” and used the river to ship his harvests and goods north through the Gulf of Mexico. Damkohler was a remarkable man. He invented a fireless cooker (heat stove), gathered many orphans, who he educated and took care of, was a landscape gardener and a medical doctor, though there is no record he ever practiced medicine.
Upon learning the U.S. government was giving away 160 acres of land to those willing to homestead, he claimed land in what is now Koreshan State Park. However, the land was hard to clear for Damkohler, who by then was in his 60s. The amount of citrus, pineapple, and a few other crops Damkohler could produce was limited to just a fraction of the land he was able to clear, and cattlemen were constantly burning what he planted to make grazing for their cattle.
To make matters worse, Damkohler’s family became ill with some unknown malady that killed his two daughters and wife, Alma, two weeks after the birth of their second son. He buried the four of them near his cottage and marked their graves with three large stones. Elwin Damkohler, the eldest son of Gustav and Alma, recalled these events in his book, Estero 1892 -Memories of the First Settlers, in which he alleges his family was poisoned by someone who wanted their land.
Now around 69, Damkohler came across some Koreshan pamphlets left by Dr. Cyrus Teed, founder of the Koreshan Unity, when he visited Pine Island to search for property for his Unity.
Damkohler liked what the pamphlets said and thought it to be a good idea to sell or even give his property to Cyrus Teed and join the Koreshan Unity commune, so he and his son would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. After Damkohler wrote to Dr. Teed, Teed and an entourage of his closest followers came to Estero to look at the property. Damkohler and Teed came to an agreement where Teed would purchase 300 acres from Damkohler for $200.
Damkohler’s son, Elwin, did not trust the Koreshans or Teed, and refused to join the Unity with his father. Elwin believed Teed tricked his father into disinheriting him and was angry with him for selling the family property to Teed.
After Damkohler grew disenchanted with the deal, Elwin convinced him to sue the Koreshans to get their property back and eventually settled with Teed out of court the return of 160 acres. The big winner, however, was Louis A. Hendry, Gustave’s lawyer, who kept 80 acres as his fee. Damkohler sold his 80 acres for $1,000 and moved to Alaska with his son to mine for gold. Damkohler died in Alaska at age 90, and Elwin returned to Florida and became a charter fishing boat captain.
Damkohler’s original cottage is now one of the eleven historic buildings on the site of what was once the Koreshan Unity. To learn more about Damkohler, his family and the Koreshans, take a guided tour of this historic settlement. Click here for available days and times, and ticket information.