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History Hits: Henry Ford and the Vagabonds

HeaderSummer is winding down, fall is starting, and it’s the time of year to look back at the adventures we have had this past season. Unless you have a very easy definition of the term ‘adventures’, chances are you had to drive some distance this summer for fun to be had. For some, any drive is a tedious experience, one you are forced to endure rather than choose willingly. For others—myself included—the drive there is part of the journey, and the longer the better.

For this week’s History Hits, we are going to look at some of the first—and probably best—epic road trips undertaken in this nation; those of Henry Ford and his group of regular adventurers whom he dubbed ‘the Vagabonds’. Between 1915 and 1924, this group would spend their summers traversing the country via caravan—consisting solely of Ford products of course—visiting places purely for the sake of enjoyment and traveling with friends. While this group would grow and shrink over these years, the core group, the ‘Four Vagabonds’, consisted of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs.

4 guys
Almost the Four Vagabonds, from Right; President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone. To imagine John Burroughs, put a Santa beard and bushy hair on President Hoover and you won’t be far off…

The impetus for these journeys was a harsh critique of Ford products by John Burroughs, a well-known naturalist. On the Model T, he described the vehicle as a “demon on wheels” that would “seek out even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul it with noise and smoke.” Ford, ever the keen bird watcher, sent the writer a brand-new Model T as a way of convincing the writer that the car, especially an affordable family automobile as Ford was attempting to market with the Model T, would grant the average American family greater access to the wilderness of their country.

Some of the vehicles which could be expected to accompany the travelers on their journeys.

It seems the goodwill gesture not only worked, but sparked a friendship, as the two took a road trip in 1914 down to the Florida Everglades, to visit Thomas Edison. Here, Burroughs met Edison for the first time, and three of the four Vagabonds were together. In 1916, Harvey Firestone—founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company—Edison and Ford were in California for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, afterwards driving from Riverside to San Diego to visit Luther Burbank, the agricultural scientist.

In 1916, Edison invited the three other men who would make up the Four Vagabonds—Ford, Burroughs, and Firestone—on a road trip through the Adirondacks and Green Mountains in New England, and while this showed the budding relationship between the group of men, Henry Ford could not make it. It was not until 1918 that the Four Vagabonds finally did a journey together, travelling through the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Food Truck
Built on a 1922 Lincoln Limo chassis, this food truck had an ice box, detachable gas stove, and enough high-end supplies to feed the small army that came.

It is at this point that it is important to describe exactly how these men travelled. These were the titans of industry, and the nation’s thinkers; mere camping would have been beneath them. Henry Ford ensured that these trips were well organized, and more importantly, well equipped. At some points totaling more than 50 vehicles, the group would travel in a caravan of cars and vans, customized to carry the group, their supplies, the staff to prepare their supplies, and supplies for their staff. Luckily for us, Ford Motor Company photographers also accompanied the group for the majority of their trips.

Harold Sato Cook Photographer
Harold Sato was one of the photographers on these journeys, and also aided the chef in cooking at night.

Despite the light-hearted exploratory nature of the trips—or perhaps because of it—Henry Ford and John Burroughs each contributed their skills to the caravan, with Ford repairing busted radiators and working as the mechanic for other mechanical problems while Burroughs led botanical nature hikes whenever camp was setup, teaching those who joined him about the local flora and fauna.

Holy Cow Piano
Yep. They brought a piano with them. From what I can find, this was on the journey of 1919, which involved over 50 custom vehicles.

Some of the more lavish ‘supplies’ brought by the group were the occasional standing piano, as well as a table for which they would become famous (in their time) for using: a giant lazy Susan that could seat up to 20 people, who could reach any condiment with merely a spin of the center table. To stock the table, Henry Ford customized a 1922 Lincoln Limousine into a refrigerated (via icebox) kitchen camping car which carried a removable gas stove and was presided over by a full-time chef aided by assistants. Burroughs, in his post-humous essay ‘A Strenuous Holiday’, described the kitchen as the ‘Waldorf-Astoria on wheels’.

Lazy Susan
And what a table it was…

The trips would continue over the years, visiting John Burroughs’ home in the Catskill Mountains, scouting trips for future Ford business interests in rural Northern Michigan, and even visiting the sitting President of the United States at his home in Vermont. Sadly, after 1924, a combination of aging Vagabonds and growing publicity of the trips led to the cancellation of the journeys. They would never resume, yet would serve as an inspiration for many of the time—and later times thanks to the writings of John Burroughs—to get out there and experience their own country

Like the article? Want to read more like it? Check out my website, for weekly history articles and more besides. If I missed something or if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit the like button.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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