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Ford and Edisonís Excellent Camping Adventures
History.com ^ | Christopher Klein

Posted on 07/31/2013 4:48:18 PM PDT by SJackson

Between 1914 and 1924, Henry Ford toured the eastern United States in his company’s automobiles on a series of well-publicized camping trips with close friend Thomas Edison, other titans of industry and even an American president. On the 150th anniversary of Ford’s July 30, 1863, birth, look back at the adventures of the self-proclaimed “Vagabonds.”


Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone c.1915. Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone c.1915.

Henry Ford had a simple business plan. He wanted to “build a motor car for the great multitude” so that all could enjoy “the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” By 1914, the automaker’s plan had come to fruition. Hundreds of thousands of Americans toured the country in his automobiles, including the wildly popular Model Ts. Ford himself drove off that winter to enjoy one of the country’s great open spaces—Florida’s Everglades—with another celebrity of the day, Thomas Edison.

Ford first met his boyhood idol in 1896 when he worked as a chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. At Edison’s request, Ford sketched his experiments with a gasoline-powered automobile, and the prolific inventor encouraged the budding automaker to continue his research. When the pair met again 16 years later, they began a lasting friendship, and beginning with their 1914 Everglades vacation, Ford and Edison embarked on lengthy camping trips nearly every year for the next decade. It was perhaps fitting that a pioneer of automobile travel and the developer of the first patented motion picture camera played the quintessential buddy roles straight out of a road-trip movie.


Edison, Burroughs and Ford

Other famous Americans comprised the supporting cast. Renowned naturalist and best-selling essayist John Burroughs, a septuagenarian who resembled Rip Van Winkle with his long white beard, joined the industrialists on their tour of the remote Everglades. The three men shared a love of the outdoors, although where Burroughs saw a pastoral stream, his fellow travelers saw an untapped source of waterpower. The following year, it was tire and rubber magnate Harvey Firestone who joined Ford and Edison on a tour of California after the men attended the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

In 1918, Ford, Edison, Burroughs and Firestone—who dubbed themselves the “Vagabonds”—set off on a lengthy camping trip from Pennsylvania to Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountains. Edison, compass in hand, navigated from his perch in the front seat of the lead touring car. “We never know where we are going, and I suspect that he does not either,” Firestone wrote of the great inventor, who had a proclivity for the road less travel—and less paved. When a broken fan punctured the radiator of one of their cars, Ford proved the master mechanic. Before a curious crowd of locals, the automaker rolled up his sleeves and personally repaired the car with his grease-stained hands.

At campsites, the competitive Ford challenged his fellow adventurers to races and contests involving everything from high kicking to tree chopping. In calmer moments, Burroughs taught Ford birdcalls and tutored Edison on flower identification. The inventor relaxed by reading newspapers and curling up under trees for naps. At night, the collective brainpower crackled around the campfire as Edison recited chemical formulas and told tall-tales, while the men debated a range of topics from current events to the merits of Mozart and Shakespeare.

The “Vagabonds” may have slept under the stars, but they were hardly “roughing it.” Edison’s mobile electric generator kept their campsites fully illuminated, and the men slept in personal tents embossed with their names. They traveled in a convoy of chauffeured Ford automobiles with an entourage of cooks and attendants. Among the 50-vehicle caravan on the 1919 camping trip was a specially designed kitchen car, which Burroughs called a “Waldorf-Astoria on wheels,” that featured a gasoline stove and a built-in refrigerator that stored everything from fresh eggs to rib-eye steaks. Inside the spacious dining tent, jacketed waiters placed bowls of food and pitchers of beverages on the lazy Susan that spun around the enormous round camp table capable of seating 20 people.


Ford, Edison, President Warren Harding and Firestone, 1921.

The camping adventures gave the famous foursome a chance to unwind but also proved to be effective advertising for Ford automobiles and Firestone tires. The road trips generated headlines such as “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation” and “Genius to Sleep Under Stars.” In darkened theaters across the United States, Americans watched newsreels shot by Ford Motor Company film crews that accompanied the “Vagabonds.”

Months after the death of Burroughs in March 1921, the remaining “Vagabonds” embarked on another extended camping trip, this time with their families in tow. (The Firestones even brought their butler.) At their campsite in western Maryland, the illustrious Americans were joined for the weekend by the new president of the United States, Warren Harding. The president brought along more than three dozen staff, including his Secret Service detail and even a player piano and wooden dancing platform. President Harding joined the men in riding horses and shooting rifles and pitched in to cut firewood and prepare dinner.

In 1924, instead of a camping adventure, Ford hosted Firestone and Edison outside of Boston at the historic Wayside Inn, which he had recently purchased. The trio made day trips, including a visit to President Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House in Plymouth, Vermont. The sojourn would be the final one for the “Vagabonds.” The publicity that Ford once courted now consumed their trips and prevented any possibility of rest and relaxation. Firestone lamented that the men’s “simple, gipsy-like fortnights” had morphed into a “traveling circus.”

The well-publicized travels of these famous Americans over the prior decade inspired a generation of auto-campers to hit the road and further strengthened the bond between Ford and Edison. In 1916, the two men became neighbors when Ford purchased an estate next to Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers, Florida. When the inventor passed away in 1931, his son gave a distraught Ford a test tube sealed with paraffin wax that purportedly contained Edison’s “last breath,” an odd remembrance on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.


TOPICS: Local News
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1 posted on 07/31/2013 4:48:18 PM PDT by SJackson
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To: SJackson

Can you imagine Obama and Bill Gates camping?


2 posted on 07/31/2013 4:52:07 PM PDT by mylife (Ted Cruz understands the law, and he does not fear the unlawful.)
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To: Iowa Granny; Ladysmith; Diana in Wisconsin; JLO; sergeantdave; damncat; phantomworker; joesnuffy; ..
If you’d like to be on or off this Outdoors/Rural/wildlife/hunting/hiking/backpacking/National Parks/animals list please FR mail me. And ping me is you see articles of interest.

Not much for this list for awhile, but I remember his camping items at the Ford Museum. Not exactly camping as we think of it, but both interesting and the forerunner of post WWII camping. The table was my favorite. The inner table is a lazy susan.

Another interesting story of the first transcontinental drive. A horse would have been easier.

Love the pup


3 posted on 07/31/2013 4:54:35 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: SJackson

It would make a great series of movies!


4 posted on 07/31/2013 4:55:41 PM PDT by Travis McGee (www.EnemiesForeignAndDomestic.com)
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To: mylife
No. If he was starting up a car company and interested in stimulating demand, Trump would. Romney would too, as would GWB.

Actually, Bill Gates probably would too. Obama, no.

5 posted on 07/31/2013 4:56:11 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: SJackson
Film of the Vagabonds on tour.
6 posted on 07/31/2013 5:01:32 PM PDT by Stonewall Jackson (I aim to misbehave.)
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To: Travis McGee

It would. I’ve never looked, but I’m bet there are some memoirs published. I don’t go to movies, but I might see that one.


7 posted on 07/31/2013 5:03:39 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: mylife
Can you imagine Obama and Bill Gates camping?

Sure, at a bathhouse.

8 posted on 07/31/2013 5:14:25 PM PDT by TADSLOS (The Event Horizon has come and gone. Buckle up and hang on.)
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To: SJackson

Teddy Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne went on a road trip, albeit a very short one.


9 posted on 07/31/2013 5:22:23 PM PDT by Darteaus94025 (Phony President)
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To: Travis McGee
Check post #6, it is some old silent film of a Vagabond camping trip in 1916.

I'd love to find a list of the different places they went on their camping trips. Retracing their steps, and possibly documenting it, would be an excellent adventure.

10 posted on 07/31/2013 5:28:54 PM PDT by Stonewall Jackson (I aim to misbehave.)
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To: SJackson

What a wonderful story! I’ve printed it off and I’m including it in a scrapbook I’m making for my mother for her 100th Birthday Bash.

Even though this road trip happened 10 years before she was born, I’m sure that travel was not much different in her early years.

Thanks for posting.


11 posted on 07/31/2013 5:40:14 PM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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To: SJackson

THAT is American history! Please add me to your list!


12 posted on 07/31/2013 5:45:02 PM PDT by ryan71 (The Partisans)
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To: mylife

There’s enough snakes out there already. No need for more.


13 posted on 07/31/2013 5:47:15 PM PDT by rfreedom4u (I have a copy of the Constitution! And I'm not afraid to use it!)
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To: SJackson

Another great story!

There was another notable along on some of those camping trips, and that was Mr. Kingsford, founder of the charcoal company. Kingsford made his charcoal briquets out of the scraps left over from the frames of Ford cars and airplanes. In those days, the passenger cabs of cars were built on wooden frames, just like stage coaches. They used wood up through the ‘30s. My husband says that the Morgan (English car) used wood in the frame through the ‘70s.

I’m familiar with all this trivia because there is a little airport in Michigan (I think Iron River) called the Ford Airport. About 20 years ago they had decorated the walls of the waiting room with giant blow up pictures of Ford and his camping parties. The ladies came along too, in all their finery. Skirts, plumed hats, button top boots. I spent many an hour there waiting for members of my family to fly in to go hunting with my husband.

I studied the pictures and the captions while waiting for the planes to fly in. There was another notable pictured with them too. A famous scientist. His name is on the fringes of my mind, and I can’t quite recall it.


14 posted on 07/31/2013 5:54:06 PM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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To: afraidfortherepublic
Happy Birthday to Mom, a wonderful occasion.

Check the link in post three about the First Great American Road Trip in 1903. The progress that was made then in the course of a decade was amazing. Industrial, road building. I've some old camping pics from the 30s, not so luxurious. An uncle installed what looks like 4.8 plywood on top of his car and pitched a small tent on it at night. Any sense, he'd have added wheels and invented pop ups.

15 posted on 07/31/2013 5:56:38 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: afraidfortherepublic

Kingsford, that’s a great piece of trivia.


16 posted on 07/31/2013 5:58:28 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: SJackson

My first comment (and the story I’m prnting off) was in reference to your link — the Great American Road Trip. I just didn’t state it that way.


17 posted on 07/31/2013 5:58:58 PM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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To: Stonewall Jackson

Good stuff. Thanks for that link. Bunch of guys going camping, horsing around and having a great time.


18 posted on 07/31/2013 6:01:49 PM PDT by Rebelbase (Tagline: (optional, printed after your name on post))
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To: SJackson

Neat story.

I first learned of the adventures of these Vagabonds last summer while we were camping in Western Maryland.


19 posted on 07/31/2013 6:07:40 PM PDT by Bigg Red (Let me hear what God the LORD will speak. -Ps85)
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To: Bigg Red

Topsy doesn’t care.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topsy_%28elephant%29


20 posted on 07/31/2013 6:13:38 PM PDT by bicyclerepair (Inbred, pedophile-worshipping, misogynists (mozlums) offend me.)
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To: bicyclerepair

In his quest to be first, edison publicly electrocuted an elephant who was abused and tried to protect her young.


21 posted on 07/31/2013 6:16:13 PM PDT by bicyclerepair (Inbred, pedophile-worshipping, misogynists (mozlums) offend me.)
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To: SJackson

The Ford Airport is actually in Kingsford, MI (I looked it up). It’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember the name of the famous scientist who used to pal around with those guys. We learn about these inventors, industrialists, scintists in school but we never think about them all being friends.

I was surprised to see John Burroughs in your pictures. He wasn’t pictured with them in the little Ford airport.


22 posted on 07/31/2013 6:40:33 PM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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To: afraidfortherepublic

Henry Ford is a very interesting guy. You can find pictures of Ford with many notable people from the turn of the century. Lindbergh, Edison, the Wright brothers, presidents, etc. Is Tesla the scientist?


23 posted on 07/31/2013 6:55:54 PM PDT by Boris99
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To: Boris99
The massive Ford manufacturing complex on the Rouge River, north of Detroit, will illustrate Ford's vision. Iron ore was made into steel for frames and car bodies, silica sand was made into glass for car windows and Ford steamships brought coal up from Lake Erie to power the whole thing.
24 posted on 07/31/2013 7:12:39 PM PDT by Eric in the Ozarks ("Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth.")
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To: afraidfortherepublic
Let me know if you remember. My recollection these were massive trips, 30 or 40 servants, and guests who'd drop in along the way. Looked around the web and couldn't find a list of "companions". Most of the photo captions list politicians. Did learn his kitchen truck was a Lincoln, cute.


25 posted on 07/31/2013 7:21:23 PM PDT by SJackson ( The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. BF)
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To: Boris99

“Henry Ford is a very interesting guy. “

It is amazing, that so many years later, he is so controversial. He was equally beloved AND hated - sometimes, by the same people! I would say that Ford represented the last, great gasp of paternalism, fueled by Ford’s creativity, and this became incompatible with the very people whom he lifted from poverty.


26 posted on 07/31/2013 8:14:48 PM PDT by The Antiyuppie ("When small men cast long shadows, then it is very late in the day.")
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To: bicyclerepair

Yipes! Sounds like they should have electrocuted the cruel trainer, as well.


27 posted on 07/31/2013 10:19:20 PM PDT by Bigg Red (Let me hear what God the LORD will speak. -Ps85)
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To: Boris99

No. Not Tesla.


28 posted on 08/01/2013 5:35:47 AM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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To: Boris99; SJackson
Charles Steinmetz -- came to me like a bolt of lightning a few minutes ago! I can't find any pictures of him with Ford, although he was a great friend of Edison's "Wizard of Schenectady" was his nom de guerre.

My husband remembers the pictures from the Ford airport, so I know it was not my fertile imagination.

Since Stenmetz was a dwarf, he probably wasn't standing with the group. He may have been seated with the others standing around. Lots of pictures of Steinmetz with Edison on the web.

29 posted on 08/01/2013 6:40:11 AM PDT by afraidfortherepublic
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