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.
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.
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.