In the summer of 1919, Thomas Edison went camping in New Hampshire with three of his closest friends: naturalist John Burroughs, automaker Henry Ford and tiremaker Harvey Firestone.
It was the early days of motor camping, the roads were rough and the trip didn’t go as planned. Instead of pitching their tents on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, they ended up at a hotel in Tilton, N.H.
The four men went camping together during the summers from 1916 to 1924. The trips started out as a way to relax in the wilds and spend time with friends, but they ended up as great publicity for Ford’s cars, Firestone’s tires and Edison's movie cameras. Moviegoers saw newsreel footage of the road trips, shot by the Ford Motor Company film crews with Edison’s cameras.
Newspaper headlines read “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation” and “Genius to Sleep Under Stars.”
Henry Ford said he built a motor car for the great multitude so they could enjoy ‘the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.’ Earlier in his career he had worked as Edison’s chief engineer, and Thomas Edison encouraged him to continue his research into gasoline-powered automobiles.
Sixteen years later, after Ford had won fame and fortune mass-producing cars, they met again and started a close friendship. They became neighbors in 1916, as Ford bought an estate next to Edison’s in Ft. Myers, Fla. The two men took their first camping trip in the Everglades.
They called themselves ‘The Vagabonds,’ but they were hardly roughing it.
Thomas Edison brought an electric generator to light the campsite, and they slept in large monogrammed tents. They were accompanied by a convoy of chauffeured automobiles. The caravan included a truck fitted out as a kitchen with a gas stove and refrigerator. They ate in a large dining tent at a table for 20, with waiters in jackets serving food and beverages.
By the summer of 1919, each had his own role. John Burroughs, 81, searched wildlands, taught birdcalls and led nature walks. Thomas Edison, 72, led late-night discussions around the campfire about politics, philosophy and current events. Harvey Firestone, 50, provisioned the expedition and hired the cooks. Henry Ford, 56, chose the campsites, fixed the cars and instigated competitions in wood chopping, high-kicking, rifle-shooting and berry picking.
Camping in New Hampshire
They started out on Aug. 1, 1919 with an entourage that included personal secretaries, Ford’s personal chef and waiters.
They drove from Albany, N.Y., to Green Island, where they checked out a site for a Ford tractor factory. Then they drove through Vermont’s Green Mountains, across New Hampshire and down through Crawford Notch.
The view of the White Mountains very impressive. We came through Crawford Notch, down and down and down, over a superb road, through woods with these great rocky peaks shouldering the sky on either side. Simply stupendous!
They stopped for lunch, drove through Conway and then west across the head of Lake Winnipesaukee and through the Weirs to Tilton.
Somewhere along the way, the kitchen truck, which also carried their tents, got separated from the convoy. The four men waited for it under a tall tree in front of the library while they munched on peanuts.
Thomas Edison Passes the Hat
By the time the truck caught up with them it was too late to camp, so they decided to spend the night at the Ideal Hotel, the best place in Tilton. After dinner, they sat on the long porch to enjoy the evening air. Word spread, a crowd gathered and people shouted for a speech.
Members of the local Salvation Army spotted an opportunity to collect some money, so they took their tambourines and joined the crowd. Burroughs made a few remarks, then Ford got up and spoke. To everyone’s surprise, Thomas Edison got off the porch, took the tambourine and began to pass it around. It was hard to refuse the eminent inventor, and soon the tambourine overflowed. Thomas Edison borrowed a hat to finish the job.
The next day the Keene Evening Sentinel reported,
Mr. Edison passed the hat and tambourine among an audience composed of everyone in town who could ride, walk or hobble to the Ideal to see him, Henry Ford and John Burroughs standing on the hotel veranda together.
In the end, the reporters and the publicity made it hard for them to relax. The Vagabonds took their last road trip in 1924. They traveled to Boston and took day trips to the Wayside Inn, which Ford had just purchased, and to Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood home in Plymouth, Vt.
When Thomas Edison died in 1931, his son sent a test tube closed with paraffin wax to Ford. He said it contained Edison’s last breath. The test tube is on display in the Henry Ford Museum.
Click here for a video documentary of ‘The Vagabonds’ camping trips.
The Vagabonds adventures have been turned into a play, Camping with Henry and Tom by Mark St. Germain.
With thanks to It Happened in New Hampshire, 2nd: Remarkable Events That Shaped History By Stillman Rogers. This story about Thomas Edison was updated in 2019.