Disillusionment immediately took a toll on the Unity. Younger members began to leave and, dividing into factions, a power struggle ensued as to who would succeed Koresh as head of the Unity. Several groups split off from the Unity. One such group was the Order of Theocracy that left in 1910 and moved to nearby Ft. Myers. This group lasted until 1931. Surprisingly, the persistent faith of about three-dozen members sustained the community for the next 30 years. The Koreshan Unity continued to be productive however, from 1916 until 1946, they generated their own electricity to power the community and sold it as well to homes in the surrounding area. The fact the Unity was celibate did not help, even though there was a married status within the Unity. Celibates were the highest order. Without new members joining, the group slowly dwindled. It continued to publish the Flaming Sword until the printing press burned down in 1949. It also published the American Eagle, which began in 1906 and later became a horticultural newspaper.
By 1940, 35 elderly members remained. It was at this time that a Jewish woman named Hedwig Michel, having just fled Nazi Germany, arrived at the Unity. She had learned of the organization while living in Germany. Over the next two years, Michel proceeded to reorganize the Koreshan General Store, adding a restaurant, a Western Union office, and, across the street, a gas station. The Unity experienced a momentary renewal, but, with only four members left by 1960, Michel offered the 300-acre “utopia” to the State of Florida.
Sometimes referred to as “The Last Koreshan,” Michel has been called a fussy and hard-nosed businesswoman who took over a failing ideological community and rekindled its elderly and faltering membership. Michel became head of the Koreshan Unity, the corporate arm of the settlement, in 1960, and hoarded the community’s possessions and land until she died in 1982. Considered by many to be a shrewd opportunist, Michel lived a life of luxury on the Koreshan grounds, driving a new Cadillac and traveling to Europe each year while many of the elderly Koreshans complained they didn’t have the bare necessities.
Mound House volunteer Bill Grace’s great-grandparents, John and Mary Grier, were part of the original Chicago Koreshans who came to live on the banks of the Estero River near the turn of the 20th century. “They considered her to be an interloper,” Grace said. “And they considered Vesta (Newcomb) to be the last surviving Koreshan.” The settlement flourished in its early days, bringing electricity and modern printing presses to a remote and relatively unsettled Southwest Florida.
Unlike the majority of Koreshans who lived at the compound in the 1960s, Michel was an outsider who forced her way into the leadership role. After securing her place as the legal figurehead, Michel later deeded more than 300 acres to the state in return for a life estate within the settlement and tax-free status. There are countless stories documented in books, newspapers and verbal tales of Michel abandoning the settlement during storms and spending money on her personal comforts rather than food and utilities for elderly Koreshan members. “She got a majority vote on the (Koreshan) board and (Koreshan Allen) Andrews filed a lawsuit against her for converting Unity assets to herself,” said Grace, himself a Fort Myers attorney. The lawsuit eventually was dismissed and Michel became an autocrat in a settlement that was founded on communal beliefs and equality among all people and races.
Evelyn Horne worked for Michel from the time she took over the Unity until Michel’s death in 1982. Over the years, Horne developed a loyalty to Michel that’s still evident when she talks about the fallen Koreshan leader today. Even though Michel ruled with strict guidelines and took little input from outsiders, Horne considers her to be a saving grace. “She really brought the Unity out of debt when we were really in the hole,” Horne said. Still, Horne doesn’t subscribe to “The Last Koreshan” title either. Like Grace and many historians, Horne says Newcomb was the real last Koreshan. After Hedwig gave custody of the land to the state, the Koreshan State Park (now known as the Koreshan State Historic Site) opened in 1967. Hedwig Michel was allowed to continue to living in the opulent building known as the "Planetary Court" until her death in 1981. Horne’s deceased husband, George Horne, buried Michel on a plot in the middle of the Koreshan State Historic Site’s garden. “The water was knee-deep where the (original) cemetery was when Hedwig died, and George couldn’t get down there to bury her,” Horne said. “So we got permission from the state to bury her in the garden.” Her grave is fenced off and marked with a descriptive stone.
Grace, one of Michel’s biggest detractors, said Michel doesn’t deserve to rest in the center of the Koreshan settlement. “I think it’s most inappropriate, especially when you consider how she let the other cemeteries go,” Grace said. There are two Koreshan cemeteries still in existence. Neither burial ground was well kept under Michel’s tenure; and today the grave sites are in risk of being lost to decay.
While many had vastly differing views of the last leader of the Koreshans, it can be agreed she took dictatorial control of the religious group and used it for her own advantage. Her greatest work, which self-servingly allowed her to live expense and tax free until her death, may have been the donation of Koreshan land to the state of Florida forming the Koreshan State Historic Site where visitors fish, picnic, boat, hike, and learn from park rangers about this unique utopian religious community along the scenic banks of the Estero River.
The settlement became the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Eleven of the community’s buildings now remain within Koreshan State Historic Site, a unit of the Florida Park Service, and house a collection of approximately 5,000 artifacts. Half of the collection is state property and is fully cataloged. The other 2,500 objects were conveyed to the State of Florida by the College of Life Foundation, the nonprofit corporate successor of the Koreshan Unity. Today, visitors can fish, picnic, boat, and hike where Teed´s visionaries once carried out survey experiments to prove the horizon on the beaches of Collier County curves upward. A boat ramp and canoe rentals are available. Visitors can take self-guided tours of the settlement or a ranger-guided tour.