Glamping with the Vagabonds

Edison, Firestone, Burroughs and Ford
Edison, Firestone, Burroughs and Ford

In the summer of 1918 Asheville was visited by a very famous troop of pioneering ‘Glampers,’ – the self-proclaimed ‘Vagabonds’ who included: Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor company and producer of the first automobile for the masses, the Model T (of which they were driving); Thomas Edison, called America’s Greatest Inventor, who was responsible for the first long-lasting electric light bulb in addition to the motion picture camera and the phonograph; Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, one of the first global manufacturers of tires, and the original tires chosen for Ford’s Model T; and the naturalist and writer John Burroughs.

The press, who followed the group closely, headlined their travels as: ”Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation” and “Genius to Sleep Under Stars.”

 

Each of the ‘Vagabonds’ had a specific job during the trips. Burroughs, 81 at the time, led the nature walks, teaching the group about plants and birds. Firestone was the youngest of the group at forty-nine, and he hired the chefs and curated the food. Edison, who was 71, was the guide, notorious for finding the bumpiest and most windy back roads with his compass and atlases – Firestone wrote of Edison’s navigation “We never know where we were going, and I suspect that he does not either.” Ford turned fifty-five that summer, and was, naturally, the mechanic of the group, and was often needed as the rumbling train of cars and trucks topping out around 18 mph through the mostly dirt roads frequently needed tuning.

The purposes of these trips, which took place two weeks almost every summer between 1914 and 1924, were three-fold: to get out into nature, to enjoy each other’s company and ideas, and to promote Ford cars and Firestone tires. Their cars were followed by trucks full of camping gear, food, private tents embossed with their names, and battery powered lights thanks to Edison (at a time when most people in the mountains outside of the city of Asheville didn’t have electricity). They also brought along cooks, servants, and even a photographer employed by the Ford Motor Company to capture ‘candid’ shots of the group which were touted in Press Releases promoting their adventures.

In 1918, even though there were over 200 car makers in the US, Ford produced more than half of the vehicles on the road – the Model T being affordable because of it’s continuity of design, ability to interchange parts, and simplicity (like the fact they were all black). The Model T touring car such as they were mostly driving on the trip was priced at $360 in 1918.  It was a 3 door, 5 passenger vehicle with two speeds forward and one reverse, a 4 cylinder water-cooled engine, 22.5 horsepower, and an electric horn (windshield wipers did not come standard, nor did air conditioning).

Burroughs, capturing their trip in a scrapbook entitled ‘Our Vacation Days 1918’ (available online through the Harvard Library https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:46429194$1i ) said of their excursion: “It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.” Riding the bumpy unpaved roads in Model T’s was a workout in and of itself, and while Burroughs found the riding very uncomfortable he pointed out that Edison was “cushiony and adjustable, and always carries his own shock absorbers with him.”

The octogenarian of the group decided to leave the trip early, writing “I had had more than my fill of joy-riding”. He caught the train back to New York from Asheville after staying the night at the Grove Park Inn, letting the others continue on without him.

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The group at the Grove Park Inn after Burroughs left. From the left – Firestone, Edison, Firestone Jr., and Ford (second from right). The other two men’s identities are contested – but it is probably E.W. Grove in the middle, and his son-in-law Fred Seely on the far right, since they owned the Grove Park Inn. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at Pack Library (found in my book – Historic Inns of Asheville).

 

All photographs (except the Grove Park above) are courtesy of The Henry Ford and can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/albums/72157628233721391

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