Vagabond Camp

Another photo of the Vagabond camp in Jonesborough turned up recently. Due to its age and deterioration it is hard to make out who is in it. It is almost certain the man holding the newspaper is Thomas Edison.

Those who were James Bond fans will remember Sean Connery deciding to relinquish his role as Bond in 1971. He said he would never play Bond again. Well, in 1983 Connery played the role of James Bond for the seventh and final time in “Never Say Never Again,” marking his return to the character 12 years after his previous role in “Diamonds Are Forever.” The film’s title is a reference to Connery’s reported declaration that he would “never again” play that role. It is reported that he had between 8 and 12 million good reasons to play Bond one more time.

I never say never, and I for sure never thought I would ever be writing a part 5 of the Vagabond series. In fact, I thought it was a one-time deal and done, but it took on a life of its own. I never said never, so here we go. Up until the Vagabonds my most commented-on article had been the one about Lewis Grizzard. With the Vagabonds, I found a lot of folks with some sort of family, camping, or car connection. I had a lot of “if I had known” comments. I received articles and photos, and we discovered that the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan was tracking the series.

We know that because they contacted me thanking me for the series and asked The Greeneville Sun to tag the museum in the online articles. I have had several people contact me about my articles from other states. One Lady in Pennsylvania told me she subscribed to the Sun just so she could read them.

I mentioned George Collins asking me if I had heard of the Vagabonds and suggesting I write about them, sparking the series. Afterward George thanked me for the articles and suggested I talk with a lady he knew who had mentioned to him a Vagabond connection.

I had the opportunity to visit with Shirley Snyder and her daughter Carolyn recently. Shirley’s husband was an engineer from an engineering family. The Snyder family owned a large farm in upstate Troy, N.Y., and on that farm had a machine shop. They built their own cars, and even what appears to be a steam-driven tractor. Their biggest claim to fame was the Snyder Combined Threshing Machine.

Following the death of the inventor, John George Snyder, Cyrus McCormick obtained the Snyder design and later the credit for revolutionizing farming. Shirley has a couple of framed advertisements for the “Snyder Combined Oat and Rye Thresher” and the “Snyder Straight Straw Rye Thresher” which the ad says are the “Two best threshing machines produced.” The image clearly shows patent dates of March 10 and April 25, 1895. That steam engine tractor would have been the power source for the thrashing machines.

The Vagabonds camped near the Snyder farm in 1908, and Ford was so impressed with the headwaters of the Hudson that he built a plant there. Shirley has a photo of her husband’s father, Dana David Snyder, and grandfather, John George Snyder, with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and John Burroughs at the Ford plant cornerstone laying. I am always amazed how people who stand out in certain areas of expertise migrate toward each other. Is there a natural magnetism that draws them to one another?

Shirley says that Harvey Firestone and J. G. Snyder connected at The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904. This was certainly a “meeting of minds” as the two inventors became fast friends. This explains why the Vagabonds camped in New York near the Snyder place four years later. There is a lot more from the Snyders I hope to share later.

Chad Bailey of the Jonesborough Historical Society sent me an article from a local newspaper of 2009 that answered some questions I left hanging in the series. The article is mostly a reprint of a 1956 article by George Kelly recounting the Vagabonds’ visit to Jonesborough.

I had asked the question, “I wonder what ever happened to little Bobby Lee?” The article starts off by answering my question. In 1956 Robert E. Lee was the manager of the Thom McAn shoe store in downtown Johnson City.

Kelly related that Lee “gave the straight of it” about the Vagabonds’ visit. He was about 8 years old at the time he said, “One day – and this was in 1918 – some men came to our farm a mile west of Jonesborough and asked if they could camp on our land. We had a good site for camping, and somebody had told these men about it. We didn’t know they were Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, Harvey S. Firestone, and John Burroughs, the great naturalist.”

Lee tells that his father William M. Lee was out of town at the time. The senior Lee was a merchant, traveling salesman and one-time mayor of Jonesborough.

Lee recalled “My mother gave them permission to set up their camp. We decided pretty soon they were big-shots, because they had three or four cars and three or four trucks. We had never seen people so well fixed for camping.”

Lee and his brothers, Albert, Edward, and Elmer “took up” with the campers. He said Henry Ford was sawing firewood and had “built a huge campfire.” Lee told about his helping Ford cut wood and the story I related earlier where Ford asked the lad if he knew who he was cutting firewood with and young Robert E. Lee informing Ford just who he was cutting firewood with.

Lee said that after he informed Ford he was sawing wood with Robert E. Lee, Ford cut the cedar limb (mentioned in a prior article) that is now in the Henry Ford Museum. Later Ford whittled it down to a smooth flat surface and asked young Lee to sign it. Ford told him, “Son, if you ever need a job when you grow up, come see me.” He would cash in the job offer and see that cedar limb again.

In 1934, Lee was newly married and jobs were scarce as the Depression was barely lifting. He went to Dearborn to the Ford Rouge plant, where he told Ford officials of the wood-sawing incident and the promise made by Ford. Lee never saw Ford that day, but knew he was there, and by his direction Lee was given a job in the shipping department, where he remained for two and a half years.

The article continues, “Several years after he came back to Washington County, he received a letter from Ford’s secretary. It contained a picture of the cedar limb. Lee believes the letter was the result of a conversation between Ford and Dr. H. J. Derthick of Milligan College, who had met Ford at a wedding. ... Ford had reminisced about his 1918 visit to East Tennessee and the wood-sawing incident.”

Recalling the camp Lee said, “People came from miles around. They tore down our fences and gates.” Lee told that several pictures were taken, and it is sad these are lost, at least as far as we know. The paper did carry an old photo of the Jonesborough campsite I had not seen. He said the Lee home burned in 1927, so any photos belonging to them were likely lost.

The 1956 article mentions “they moved along in six cars, two Packards for riding, two Model T’s and two Ford trucks plus seven drivers and helpers.” It also gives the area of expertise of Professor R. J. DeLoach as “an expert in plant pathology.” Not sure what an expert in plant diseases was doing with the group, but I am sure it was as a friend. I cannot help but wonder when he saw Ford with the cedar limb, if Chicago based DeLoach told Ford “that is a limb of a cee-daar tree.”

The 1956 article continues, “Today’s auto executives could learn from this trip’s example. Instead of flying around the United States in their corporate jets, what if they get in automobiles, pack some tents, and drive around the country? This would give them the opportunity to display their ‘cars of tomorrow’ while actually talking to the people they want to purchase them. Sleeping on the ground in East Tennessee might just be the occasion for thought by today’s CEOs and CFOs that would trigger ideas that might lead to the revival of the automobile industry.” You know, a few years ago companies were taking primitive retreats without modern conveniences to allow managers to bond.

The 2009 part of the article says a photo was published of Lee and Ford with the infamous cedar limb, but I have yet to find it. I am not saying never, but if it does show up could we be looking at a part six of this series?

The 1956 article bemoans the auto industry and mentions “four coil suspension systems” and “modifying carburation,” and that some cars “sat too tall in the saddle.” The “revival of the auto industry” was a concern addressed further. It talks about a lag in sales, which the article states was because “1956 autos have the appearance of ‘warmed over’ models, although many, many mechanical improvements have been incorporated in the ’56 cars in general.” One other factor was an announcement from a New York City analyst that major changes would be made in the 1957 models.

I found it interesting they were worried about carbonation and gas mileage when gas was 6 cents a gallon. When I started driving, Dave’s Oil had gas for 16 cents a gallon, everywhere else was 18 cents. Speaking of the ’57 models, my mom had a pink 1957 Chevrolet – that was one cool car. I did drive that car and remember it well.

I have a newspaper I saved from the ’70s when gas in Greeneville went to 44 cents a gallon. The paper has photos of signs from gas stations all over town reflecting the “massive price increase.” I remember the lines when people were talking gas could go over 50 cents a gallon. I think we are lucky they are under $2 these 40 years later.

1956 doesn’t seen that long ago, until I realize I wasn’t around yet. Its hard to beat those old cars of yesteryear, even with all the modern conveniences. I am not going to complain about gas prices because they could be a lot worse. I can now sleep at night knowing little Bobby Lee grew up to be a shoe salesman and kept Ford to his word about a job. It all makes me want to go stroll through the City Garage Car Museum and take in the beauty of the old cars. These too are works of art.

I am never going to say there will never be a part six of the Vagabonds story, because Caroline Blanks and I have yet to follow their trail from Bristol to Asheville. I am still waiting on Kent Bewley to offer a T-model Ford or Packard to make the trek more realistic. This story is coming, sure as COVID is going away … someday.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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