The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip
"Jeff Guinn studies the very different Edison and Ford as much as the places they camped. Readers will find the principal characters different from how they are remembered in popular memory."
One the great legends of the Gilded Age concerns the camping trips taken by Henry Ford, accompanied over the years by John Burroughs, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Warren G. Harding, and other prominent men. These vacations pioneered and popularized how "Americans increasingly used cars for weekend or extended holiday travel," called "Gypsying" by "autocamping."
The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip covers those vacations year by year from 1914 to 1924. Jeff Guinn studies the very different Edison and Ford as much as the places they camped. Readers will find the principal characters different from how they are now remembered in popular memory. Those years included Ford's many controversies, Edison's failures, World War I, and the business collapse of 1920.
Edison and Ford each effectively used the publicity. "A main purpose of the Vagabonds' summer trips was to demonstrate how much they had in common with other Americans." These road trips also promoted exploring nature and seeing wilderness America. The famous travelers made news when they cancelled the 1917 trip to work to keep America out of World War I.
America celebrated the opening of the Lincoln Highway "some 3,400 miles of road starting in New York City . . . and ending in San Francisco" in 1918. Edison and Ford, however, chose to draw attention instead to the little known and underdeveloped South, "almost equivalent of travel to a foreign country populated by colorful, primitive natives."
Guinn writes an easy, fast, and engaging prose that leaves the reader looking forward to each chapter. He uses these trips to explore how the automobile had begun to change America, radically in California but far slower elsewhere. Ford was responsible for increasing the number of automobiles from 194,400 in 1908 to around 2,000,000 by 1914 and 8,000,000 in 1920.
Henry Ford "generally accepted the responsibilities of his celebrity—he'd worked to cultivate it, realizing early on that his personal fame heightened demand for Model Ts." His great innovations "that transformed American consumerism and travel" included use of cars "more and more for family transportation." Through his well-publicized annual trips into the woods, Ford encouraged buying vehicles "for as many as six passengers."
These sojourns into the rural countryside sold Ford cars but also served as just plain fun. Vagabonds opens with Ford and the hard of hearing Edison showing up in Paris, Michigan, in 1923 asking for a performance by fiddler Jep Bisbee. They brought with them John Burroughs, "the creaky naturalist could identify and tell about all sorts of plants, flowers, and birds."
The Vagabonds traveled in comfort as much as possible, but the trips had challenges. "One car or another would take a wrong turn on a poorly marked road" and finding fuel at the dawn of the petroleum age became a constant problem. If "it grew dark, continuing on the road was dangerous."
In other trips, the travelers faced danger. The Everglades road trip in 1914, for example, proved "difficult and dangerous," "prowled by Panthers and bears" and with "gators and snakes submerged." An angry farmer called them gypsies and tramps before running them off his property in the Adirondacks in 1916.
"The Florida fiasco" almost ended the trips. Edison suggested and Ford agreed, however, to make their road trips an annual event, following the fun they had in California during a trip to the San Francisco Exposition in 1915. With their friend Harvey Firestone, they thus named themselves "the Vagabonds." Firestone wrote that the trips ended in 1924 because of "insatiable public interest" although age and health likely had more to do with the end.
The national media thoroughly covered these journeys by the famous "closest of friends" "that thrilled ordinary Americans." "The whole idea of driving trips was grounded on the concept of going where you wanted for as far as you liked," even when "many travelers were on tight budgets." "Much of the appeal of car trips lay in wearing comfortable clothes." America's automobile culture had begun.