One of the volunteer docents at the Koresh State Park Historic Site told us a story about Vesta Newcomb. Vesta was the longest-serving participant of the Koreshan faith. Vesta Newcomb’s mother started following Cyrus Teed when Vesta was nine, and Vesta lived on the Koresh property until she was 96. The story was that at age 15 Vesta moved to the Florida community from Chicago with five younger girls in her care. After arriving at Fort Myers the only way to the compound (around 1893) was taking a boat up the Estero River. Unbeknownst to the young women the person taking them on the boat was the disgruntled son of the original landowner. Halfway to their destination he made the girls get out and walk the rest of the way, through the river and wild shrub, wearing long dresses and carrying all their luggage.
JB wanted to know more about this fellow, and so looked him up after we got back to the pyramid and found a brief memoir online. His name was Elwin Damkohler and he tells his version of how his father was suckered out of his land by a charismatic con-man.
Cyrus Teed, the man who founded Koreshanity, obtained the property for his religious community from Gustave Damkohler. Damkohler’s son Elwin believed he was robbed of his inheritance and did not have a favorable view of the Koreshans. In 1967 he pulblished his memoirs in a slim pamphlet titled Estero, FLA, Memoirs of the First Settler.
It’s only 18 pages and worth a few minutes if you like that sort of thing.
Gustave Damkohler purchased 320 acres of Florida scrubland in 1882 and moved his young family out there to raise bees. It did not go well.
Gustave planted black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes to feed the family, and decided to try pineapples as a money crop. A fire destroyed the crop within a year and the son believed it was local cattlemen trying to run the homesteaders out. Gustave’s wife died within two years of moving to Florida, two weeks after giving birth to a daughter. The infant died a short time later.
Not long after his mother’s death a man arrived whom Elwin refers to as ‘the stranger’ and Mr. X. This man purchased some of Damkohler’s land when the money was sorely needed.
A few months later all the children were stricken with some unknown disease. Elwin’s little brother, little sister, and older sister all died. Elwin was Gustave’s sole surviving child.
Elwin believes Mr. X poisoned the children as part of an elaborate scheme to take control of the Damkohler property.
Father and son managed to carve out a life for themselves for the next decade or so. Then came the fateful day they met Cyrus Teed.
Teed, already convinced he was the second coming of Christ, was in Florida looking for land on which he could build his New Jerusalem. As they were taking Teed and his companions to the Damkohler property Teed shot at some birds for fun. The young Elwin frowned on this frivolous behavior and never took a shine to the prophet.
Gustave, however, became enamored of the charismatic Teed and signed over the rights to his property.
Elwin claims that within a few days of signing over the property Gustave came to his senses and wept, realizing he had disinherited his son. This didn’t stop Gustave, however, from continuing to work for Teed and Teed’s righteous vision.
Elwin goes on to describe, in very unflattering light, the development of the Koresh community. He claims that Teed lied about all the things he would do for the Damkohler’s if Gustave signed over his property. He protrays the group as generally inept, and points out some simple tests for proving we live on the outside of a globe and not the inside.
If Elwin did behave in the ungallant manner claimed by Vesta it must have been not long before he left the compound to make his own way in the world. A moment when he was simply fed up with the deceit and incompetence of the Koreshans.
When he was about sixteen Elwin left the compound, found a job, got educated, and started his own business. He eventually became a guide for sports fishermen.
(100 Days of Blogging: Post 049 of 100)