In their day, surely no Americans were more famous than Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Although Ford didn’t invent the automobile, his Model T was the first car that many middle-class Americans could afford. Ultimately, the Model T revolutionized transportation and American industry — and made Ford the nation’s first billionaire.
Edison, of course, invented the first practical light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and much more.
Imagine what might have happened if the iconic Ford and Edison decided to embark on a series of summertime camping trips. Actually, no imagination is required, for the two men did exactly that. And, for good measure, they were joined by two other famous men — industrialist Harvey Firestone, who manufactured the tires Ford’s cars and trucks rode on, and well-known naturalist John Burroughs.
In “The Vagabonds” (Simon & Schuster, $28), bestselling historian Jeff Guinn details the story of the famous foursome’s 10-year series of road trips.
It all started in 1914, when Ford and Burroughs visited Edison at his winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, and convinced him to join them in a tour of the Everglades. The next year saw Ford, Edison and Firestone again embark on a lengthy camping trip.
They would continue their summer road trips nearly every year until 1925, when they announced their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on.
While the Vagabonds, as they decided to call themselves, did their fair share of roadside camping and traveling through treacherous conditions, like Florida’s swampy Everglades and countless miles of unpaved roads, the Vagabonds didn’t exactly rough it.
They journeyed in a caravan of six vehicles — two fancy Packard autos, two Model Ts and two Ford trucks — and were accompanied by an entourage of drivers, butlers, chefs and other staff.
Over the 10-year period of their trips, the travelers motored through a number of states.
The 1918 trip covered a lot of ground, for the Vagabonds drove from Pennsylvania down through West Virginia to Tennessee, and then swung over to North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland — a trip that set the pattern for other multi-state itineraries in the following years.
The original plan called for the men to sleep on cots in Army tents and bathe in nearby streams, but they often wound up overnighting in hotels with comfy beds and hot showers.
Wherever the Vagabonds traveled, newspaper reporters and photographers, fans and curiosity-seekers followed them. Certainly their highly publicized road trips kept the men (especially Ford and Edison) in the public eye. Newspapers across the country recorded the quartet’s daily doings, as did the era’s movie theaters, which screened newsreels of the campers.
As historian Guinn writes on the last page of his chronicle of the Vagabonds’ travels: “Their adventures ... helped usher in a new national lifestyle.”
When Ford and his friends began their trips, cars were unreliable and roads were even worse. There were no campgrounds, roadside gas stations or parking lots. But by 1925, all that had changed, and a summer trip by automobile had become a part of American life.