By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton
Fort Myers, Fla., on the Gulf Coast, had been known primarily as a place where cattle were gathered and marketed and for its strategic military location. When famous inventor Thomas Edison chose to build a winter home along the Caloosahatchee River, the citizenry of Fort Myers hoped this was the first of many. Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Edison in Fort Myers in 1914, and during that visit, they traveled or attempted to travel in the Everglades. Time was spent in the Everglades, but travel was limited. There were few of anything that could be considered roads, thus travel was basically impossible even for the famed Model T.
A more serene trip was taken the next year, as there was to be a Thomas Edison day at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Ford’s private railroad car was the main source of travel. Since there were more than one exposition, Harvey Firestone suggested driving to the one in San Diego. Ford dealerships made it easy to arrange automobile travel. It was during this trip that the idea of an annual camping trip emerged. The trip would provide time away from work and exceptional publicity for each of their products.
It was hoped that the idea of a traveling camping trip would catch on with the emerging middle class. Though the middle class would hardly “camp” as the “Vagabonds” did. There were staff to set up and take down. A chef was provided, as was an accompanying supply truck, often two. Tents had electric lights compliments of Edison — provided by batteries. Even so, the idea did catch on, leading to auto campgrounds and eventually motels.
Ford involved John Burroughs in many of the trips to provide insight into the natural world. The resultant publicity encouraged the sale of his books as well as the products of Ford, Edison, and Firestone. Often the wives were included in the trips. Except for 1922, trips were taken each year, usually in the northeast; in 1923, though, the trip was to northern Michigan. In 1924, the last of the trips included northern Michigan, Massachusetts and to President Coolidge’s home in Vermont. Toward the end of their joint travels, the inventors didn’t draw automatic attention, as there were other noteworthy happenings from the broadcast world.
Regarding the trips to northern Michigan, it should be remembered that Detroit, Mich., was Ford’s home base where Model Ts were produced. Consequently, a trip to northern Michigan, while less settled than the northeast, was well within reach.
At one point, Ford was considered a possible presidential candidate. He spoke out against both World Wars for different reasons. With World War I, he was against foreign involvement, but World War II found him sympathetic to Hitler’s antisemitic stand. In both cases, he was American citizen enough to produce equipment for the war efforts.
Edison spent his later years attempting to identify a plant that would grow in the United States and produce latex for rubber production. His goal was to identify potential plants and an affordable method of extraction. The intent was to make the U.S. self-sufficient. Though he grew many interesting plants on his estate in Fort Myers, he never accomplished his goal.
“The Vagabonds” is well worth reading for its insight into history as well into Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Should you follow their travel example, the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit is something special, as are the Ford and Edison estates in Fort Myers. Considerable information on both is available on the Web.