A “vagabond,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a person without a permanent home who moves from place to place: wanderer. A tramp, vagrant.” This is hardly the word to describe three of the early twentieth-century’s titans of industry: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone, but it’s the name the three adopted, along with naturalist John Burroughs, as they toured the United States by automobile between 1914 and 1924.
With the invention of Ford’s Model T, cars became increasingly affordable to Americans who took to the highways for leisure. The road trip we take for granted today was completely new then—an adventure on rough roads in often unchartered territory. Despite the hardships involved, it captured the American spirit and offered middle class people free and open access to the kind of travel only the wealthy had known.
All of this was not lost on Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. The more that people hit the roads, the more cars and tires they would purchase. In 1915, the two, along with Thomas Edison, decided to make the most out of their visit to the dazzling Panama-Pacific International Exposition on San Francisco’s northern shore. As part of the fair’s celebration of things new and cutting-edge, the inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera was feted at Edison Day on October 21, 1915.
Ford and Edison had traveled west with their families—ironically in Ford’s private rail car—but after Edison’s big day, the two eschewed the train for a car and headed north to Santa Rosa to visit another celebrated innovator, the horticulturalist Luther Burbank, who had also had his special day at the fair. A photograph made on Burbank’s ivy covered steps shows Edison appearing blissful in his escape of what he called “fictitious civilization.”
After touring Burbank’s experimental garden, Edison, Ford, and Firestone headed south on a tour of California on their way to the state’s sister fair, San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition. On October 29, they entered the Plaza de Panama where they were met by thousands of school children and showered with flowers—perhaps some of them Burbank’s famous hybrids.
Edison headed out each subsequent year, mostly with Ford, Firestone, and Burroughs, but always with a camping entourage that included up to fifty of Ford’s vehicles, supplies, and staff, and, naturally, enough illumination to light the summer nights. “It often seemed to me,” Burroughs joked, “that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.” By 1924 the gypsy camper gang had become too well known, and the trips ceased.
As the summer season comes to an end, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s day in the sun in San Francisco and the spirit of the “Vagabonds,” which lives forever on the American road.
The following images of the Vagabonds’ adventures are from the Henry Ford albums.
Ackley, Laura. San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books / California Historical Society, 2015.
Klein, Christopher. Ford and Edison’s Excellent Camping Adventures. History.com, 2015.
The Henry Ford / Benson Ford Research Center. The Vagabonds.
Carlson, Peter. Fat Cats and Vagabonds. HistoryNet, 2013.
Strategic Projects Liaison
Title image: (Left to right) The Self-Proclaimed Vagabonds: Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone, 1918; The Henry Ford Collection.