vagabonds at a mill.jpg

The Vagabonds had photographs taken along their journey, including this one at an old mill. Shown are, from left, Thomas Edison (standing), John Burroughs and Henry Ford (atop wheel) and Harvey Firestone. The group passed through Greeneville in 1918.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a multi-part series on “The Vagabonds” and their travels, which brought them to this region.

George Collins recently asked if I had ever heard of “The Vagabonds” and I told him I had. He seemed a bit surprised, but I told him I had read about their experiences in East Tennessee several years back. Vagabonds is a broadly inclusive term meaning anything from vagrants, drifters, and beggars to travelers, wanderers, and nomads. “The Vagabonds” George asked about, however, were a specific group.

I read the book “The Vagabonds” about the particular band that George had in mind. I’m not talking about a musical band either. I have newspaper clippings about their adventures around the country. Newspapers kept the country informed with their annual escapades. While many giants of history become recognized only after time, these men were famous in their own lifetimes. This group was not only nationally known, but well known on an international scale. They traveled the country camping out and enjoying each other’s company over a 10-year period.

Nobody would show much concern for these Vagabonds except for who they were. They were four giants of their day: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and, until his death in 1921, the foremost naturalist, John Burroughs

Thomas Edison was one of the world’s greatest inventors. He was the maker of the incandescent light bulb and the sounding machine, which was a cylinder recording device. He invented hundreds of other practical electrical devices, holding over 1,100 patents, which is still the record.

Henry Ford was originator of the automobile called the Model T. It was said to have brought more joy and happiness to mankind than any other contrivance. He invented the assembly line, both for affordable cars and farm tractors. He gave us the five-day work week, eight-hour work days, and a decent work wage. He was one of the world’s great innovators. He sold cars in any color you desired, as long as it was black.

Harvey Firestone organized the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, a leading firm in the rubber industry. He developed a revolutionary tire design that required the rim to be purchased with the tire from Firestone. He had no takers in the marketplace until he approached Ford. The innovative tires added to Ford’s progressive car design. Ford’s rocketing success made Harvey Firestone a wealthy man. Many Ford cars to this day still come mounted on Firestone tires.

Burroughs is the name that might not ring a bell. He was an odd duck in a pond full of odd ducks. Take my word for it. He was an extremely intelligent and a well-known writer. He had also been a teacher. In the words of his biographer Edward Renehan, “Burroughs’ special identity was less that of a scientific naturalist than that of a literary naturalist with a duty to record his own unique perceptions of the natural world. The result was a body of work whose resonance with the tone of its cultural moment explains both its popularity at that time, and its relative obscurity since.” Burroughs could stir the pot a bit as he referred to other nature writers as “nature fakers.” For sure, he was an opinionated old coot.

As “The Vagabonds” author Jeff Guinn relates, “In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves ‘The Vagabonds.’ They continued their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on.”

Here you have four men, more popular than the U.S. president, going out on the road camping together. In July 1921, President Warren Harding joined them for a weekend. Harding was given the job of cutting the firewood. He was the low man on the totem pole. In a modern comparison: if Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg, and Scott Niswonger went camping, Niswonger would have the blisters from swinging the ax, I guarantee it.

Harding enjoyed riding horses with his hosts through the woods, the first time since childhood. Then he walked a half mile down a dusty road along with Ford and Firestone to a country store so he could call his wife at the White House to check in. Times have changed. Since John Burroughs had passed away, Harding temporarily filled in the fourth man position. Firestone brought along a player piano for evening entertainment. Now that’s roughing it!

I had long thought they piled in a car and traveled alone with their gear. After reading several articles from the period, their life on the road was not as rough as one would think. These self-named “Vagabonds” camped in a style appropriate to wealthy gentlemen. Numerous support staff drove and maintained the vehicles, set up camp, started fires, did the cooking, made the coffee, and took photographs.

The four rode together sometimes with wives and family in a second car, and two or three trucks followed along to carry their gear. Edison brought batteries to light the camps and tents. They ate on tin plates but they brought tables with linen tablecloths. They had chefs to prepare their meals and wash the dishes. It was probably rough looking at it from our modern prospective, but not so much in their time. The main purpose was for the four busy men, who greatly admired each other, to get away and spend some quality time together, even with family sometimes in tow. The truly rough part was sleeping on cots or the ground and the rough ride on the bad roads of the day.

The underlying truth, according to some writers, was that it was indeed a chance to get away, but more so, a chance to promote Ford’s motorcars. Ford was promoting his car, Edison his battery, and Firestone his rubber tire. Burroughs was along to enjoy nature and the company. Another aspect of the trip was to bring attention to the poor roads across the country that would have to be improved to accommodate the coming of the motorcar. It was fun, but it was still business.

On one trip, Ford surmised that he should build an affordable tractor to make farmers’ lives easier. He would do just that. Those red and gray tractors were on about every small farm in Greene County when I was growing up, giving way only to the newer blue and gray diesel models.

There is an anecdote from the period that Ford’s car broke down along a back road. A farmer was plowing with his horse and out of curiosity walked over to offer his assistance, having no idea who the gentlemen were. He asked what was wrong and one of the gentlemen said, “Our motorcar has stopped.” The farmer looked under the hood for a second and said, “Must be the engine.” Ford stepped up and said, “I’m Henry Ford and I built that engine, there is nothing wrong with it.” The farmer said, “Well it must be the battery.” Edison stepped up and said, “I’m Thomas Edison and I built that battery, there is nothing wrong with it.” The old farmer decided it must be the tires, you guessed it, Harvey Firestone stepped up and said, “I’m Harvey Firestone and I made those tires, and they’re just fine.” The farmer throws up his hands and says, “You say you are Ford, Edison, and Firestone! I suppose that old guy with the beard is going to tell me he is Santa Claus!”

The story of the Vagabonds continues in next week’s column as the traveling group reaches Bristol and Northeast Tennessee.

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.

Recommended for you