A century ago, arguably the most famous man in America was an innovator and entrepreneur. So was the second most famous. So when Thomas Edison and Henry Ford embarked on their annual proto-glamping excursions--which, yes, they did, accompanied by less-starry chums Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs--Americans obsessively followed along. Eager to sell more Model T's, personal-brand-savvy Ford encouraged press coverage. There were many manly photo opps (think wood chopping), kindnesses doled out to commoners, presidential pop-ins.
So we learn in Jeff Guinn's new book, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip (Simon & Schuster, July 9), which unfolds against a landscape transformed by what that formidable duo invented or advanced. Both were flawed. Ford, the virulent anti-Semite, raised wages to $5 a day--and then sent inspectors to search employees' homes for booze or mess. But the public viewed their accomplishments as magic. And, each summer, these magicians moved among them, inspiring not just admiration but--for a time--something approaching love.
Edison and Ford rolling across the country in their well-stocked caravan were only marginally more sincere than today's founders, who make their populist moves via social media. But given privacy fiascos, disappointing IPOs, and ongoing bad behavior, Silicon Valley needs a new narrative. It's summer. Enjoy the following excerpt from Guinn's book and then consider hitting the open road.
The Vagabonds party filled their gas tanks in Greensburg, and also bought a linen "duster" coat for Burroughs, who wasn't sparing in his complaints about being cold the night before. There followed a further delay caused by what would become a common irritant on the trip. Virtually everyone in Greensburg surrounded the cars, maneuvering for clear glimpses of their iconic visitors. The Vagabonds wanted to get back on the road again, and town officials wanted some sort of ceremony, including remarks by Edison or Ford. But Edison never made speeches in public, and after his bumbled attempt at a public address prior to the departure of the Peace Ship, Ford wasn't about to, either. They were willing to acknowledge the crowd with friendly smiles and waves--Edison, over the years, had also perfected a courtly public bow--and, to a limited extent, chat with local reporters (so there would be Vagabonds coverage in the next issue of their newspapers) and oblige autograph seekers. But in Greensburg and almost every other subsequent stop, everyone wanted more. Throughout the trip, Firestone was always willing to step in and offer brief remarks, but in Greensburg no one wanted to listen to him. Gracefully extricating themselves from town took some time. Firestone wrote that only "after considerable effort we finally got started on our way toward Connellsville," the next town along the day's anticipated route.
But the way south to Connellsville lay on an "unfinished road," meaning it was not paved or even sanded. Hard-packed dirt pocked with divots and freckled with sharp-edged rocks proved especially hard on one of the caravan's two heavy Packards. A bouncing rock punctured the car's radiator and broke the fan that cooled it. The procession ground to a halt, too far from Greensburg to go back and still a considerable distance from a garage in Connellsville. Most auto vacationists would have been stranded, but the Vagabonds traveled with Henry Ford, who raised the Packard's hood and tinkered with the radiator leak until it was temporarily plugged, hoping it was capable of lasting the dozen miles or so to Connellsville. It did--just. But mechanics at the Wells-Mills Motor Car garage in town pronounced the damage unrepairable--all four arms of the fan were broken off. A replacement fan would have to be sent for. Considerable delay was inevitable, certainly a day at least. A reporter for the town paper wrote that "hundreds of persons" gathered around, all eager for a good look at "Edison, Ford and Burroughs [who] were of chief interest ... all [three] were easily recognized." Firestone apparently was not.
Ford listened to the mechanics, then asked if he could borrow some of their tools. Using his own penknife and their soldering iron, he poked holes in the broken bits of fan, stitched them together with thin wire, then soldered the wire in place. The punctured point on the radiator was also soldered tight. The ignition was switched on and the Packard ran perfectly. Ford's repair work took two hours; as soon as it was finished, he was anxious to be going. Before the passengers could pile in and resume the trip, a delegation of Connellsville ladies approached. They requested that Ford and Edison pose for a photograph beside a pile of tires being donated to the Red Cross. Probably with Firestone doing most of the talking, the Vagabonds were able to demur without causing any offense. It was a relief to get back on the bumpy road.
But not for long. Soon someone noticed that the battery-cooled commissary truck had fallen far behind, in fact out of sight. One of the Ford staff was sent back in a Model T to investigate, while the rest of the cars went on to Uniontown near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. Everyone was frustrated by the delays and hungry because their lunch, packed in camp that morning and described by Firestone as "fried chicken and other good things," was back on the missing commissary truck. Either Firestone or Ford had an agent in Uniontown, and he reported a phone call from the staff member who'd gone back to look for the lost truck. His message was that the vehicle's drive shaft was broken. A replacement part was on the way, but there would be further delay until it arrived and could be put in place.
Ford and Edison had begun the trip determined that there would be no hotel stays at all. This time it would be camping all the way. But without the commissary truck there was no food to cook on the kitchen truck, and on only their second day out the Vagabonds found themselves in need of a hotel that could provide rooms and feed them--Burroughs was especially touchy about missing any meals. Fortunately, Ford and Firestone knew of a splendid place only a half-dozen miles from Uniontown. The Summit Hotel was a wonder, situated partway up a mountain whose crest offered a panoramic view in all directions. Many important people had stayed there, often while they attended auto races on the outdoor wood track in Uniontown. The Vagabonds had no reservations, and it was summer and the height of vacationist season, but surely no hotel of any kind would turn away Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
They were in luck. Several rooms were available--Burroughs and DeLoach shared, as did Firestone and Harvey Jr. Ford and Edison had private rooms. Hotel staff obligingly fed the party immediately after its arrival. Firestone noted that although "all were very much opposed to a hotel," he personally found it "a very delightful opportunity to get a bath and a shave." Any notion Firestone had of a comfy late afternoon and evening indoors was soon dashed. Immediately after eating, Ford announced that he intended to hike to the very top of the mountain and wanted Firestone to come along. The tire maker afterward recalled, "Of course I wanted to be congenial, and said, 'Certainly, I will join you in anything.'" That response typified Firestone's relationships with Ford and Edison--doing what was asked of him, helping out in whatever way the two great men required.
From The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. Copyright 2019 by 24Words LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.