Skip to comments.Ford and Edisonís Excellent Camping Adventures
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 companys 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 Fords 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 Gods great open spaces. By 1914, the automakers 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 countrys great open spacesFloridas Evergladeswith 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 Edisons 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 Firestonewho dubbed themselves the Vagabondsset 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 traveland 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. Edisons 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 Coolidges 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 mens 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 Edisons 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 Edisons last breath, an odd remembrance on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Can you imagine Obama and Bill Gates camping?
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
It would make a great series of movies!
Actually, Bill Gates probably would too. Obama, no.
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.
Sure, at a bathhouse.
Teddy Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne went on a road trip, albeit a very short one.
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.
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.
THAT is American history! Please add me to your list!
There’s enough snakes out there already. No need for more.
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.
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.
Kingsford, that’s a great piece of trivia.
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.
Good stuff. Thanks for that link. Bunch of guys going camping, horsing around and having a great time.
I first learned of the adventures of these Vagabonds last summer while we were camping in Western Maryland.
Topsy doesn’t care.
In his quest to be first, edison publicly electrocuted an elephant who was abused and tried to protect her young.
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.
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?
“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.
Yipes! Sounds like they should have electrocuted the cruel trainer, as well.
No. Not Tesla.
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.
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