Edison & Friends
Edison and Friends Go Camping
March 1916, “with Mr. Ford’s compliments,” local Ford agent Hill & Company presented a Model T touring car to Thomas Edison. The value of the vehicle was $480. In 1922, Ford and Edison traveled to downtown Fort Myers in the car, stopping at Hill and Company to talk with Hill and shake hands with his employees. Edison referred to such jaunts as “motor rides.”
This “Southern Trade” Model T has a sixty inch wide tread, rather than the standard fifty six inch tread. The wider tread was designed so the cars’ wheels would fit into existing wagon ruts on the rough roads that were often the norm in small southern towns like Fort Myers. Edison’s friend Harvey Firestone updated the original wooden wheels with balloon tyres in 1924. This car is still in full running condition.
Thomas Edison and his Model T
Henry Ford said of the Model T, “I will make a motor car for the great multitude.” Indeed, Ford’s perfection of the assembly line made mass production of the Model T possible. In turn, production costs were significantly lowered and the average person could now afford to own one. Henry Ford never said “I don’t mind what colour it is so long as it’s black.” Just like Michael Caine has never said in any film “Not a lotta people know that.”
The Model T featured several innovations. Vanadium steel lightened the car’s weight. The crank-started car was propelled by a four-cylinder, twenty horsepower engine. Because of the engine’s ground-breaking design, the Model T did not require frequent stops for oil. In addition, a unique planetary transmission created a slight forward movement when idling, which earned the Model T the affectionate nickname “the family horse.”
The Model T quickly became the subject of American folklore, including songs, jokes, limericks and vaudeville routines. The following parody of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” was even used by Ford dealers in advertising.
Yes, Tin, Tin, Tin,
You exasperating puzzle, Hunka Tin,
I’ve abused you and I’ve flayed you,
But, by Henry Ford who made you,
You are better than a Packard, Hunka Tin.
The Model T “Chuckwagon”. The three large drawers are made out of Model T floorboards and have a slide out table for food preparation. To make room for the table and drawers, the battery, originally located behind the back seat on the driver’s side, was moved to a specially designed battery box on the running board. Another unique feature is the water faucet located along the vehicle’s right side. Ford converted two Model T gas tanks into storage containers to hold fresh water.
The original tyres were thirty inch wooden wheels and were replaced around 1926 with twenty one inch rubber tyres reinforced with wire. This allowed for a smoother ride. By 1931, the vehicle was owned by Greenfield Village, now part of the Henry Ford Museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan. In the 1980’s it was sold to a private collector and was acquired by the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in 1997. Restoration was completed in 2010. The original RV.
Almost a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison and his good friend Henry Ford began a ten year exploration of America utilising Ford’s new automobiles. In 1914 Edison, Ford, John Burroughs, and assorted family members assembled their Ford motor cars and embarked on a camping and exploratory trip of the Florida Everglades. It would begin a decade of exploration of America by the self-proclaimed ‘Vagabonds’ and the beginning of an unprecedented era of recreational travel that would transform America.
Edison, Ford, and Burroughs with family and friends on a camping trip in the Florida Everglades.
Edison had purchased riverside property in Fort Myers in 1885 and created a tropical retreat for himself, his family, friends and professional colleagues. By 1914 he was ready to explore Florida and to engage his colleague Henry Ford with his automobiles in the project.
In the winter of 1914, the respected American Naturalist, John Burroughs and automobile magnate Ford arrived in Fort Myers to much fanfare and excitement to visit Edison. At the time Burroughs, the author of dozens of nature essay collections, enjoyed immense national popularity. Ford was at the height of his fame, having produced his self-coined “motor car for the multitude,” and instituted the previously unheard of - five dollar per day pay rate and eight hour workday.
Burroughs marveled at the exotic subtropical plants and birds of the Caloosahatchee River region, noting how much the area reminded him of Honolulu and Jamaica. Ford always looked forward to spending time away from his busy industry with his mentor and hero, Thomas Edison. Although we don’t know exactly how the idea for their first camping journey into Florida’s wild country came about, it seems likely that Edison saw the trip as an adventure and opportunity to share his beloved Eden with his friends.
However the idea materialised, the three famous men journeyed into the Everglades and investigated the flora and fauna of the Big Cypress area. Roughing it off-road in the Florida interior gave the men a taste for discovery. As a result, they, along with tire industrialist Harvey Firestone, embarked on a series of camping trips through the eastern United States.
For the next ten years, the “Vagabonds” and their guests explored America their way. They experienced the growing nation and its resources, as well as the interests of the American public, first-hand. They also engaged in tree chopping contests, entertained curious onlookers, motored off-road and enjoyed time away from their busy lives. Yet the camping trips merit a deeper significance when observed against the backdrop of a period of tremendous political, technological and industrial change.
According to Harvey Firestone’s reminiscences, each of the famous campers had a pre-described role in the trips. Edison arranged a storage battery set-up to light the camps and provide electricity. He also led late-night fireside discussions about politics, philosophy and current events that became the hallmark of the trips. Firestone made sure the vehicles were loaded with provisions and hired the cooks.
Ford scouted out potential camping areas, often taking a swim in nearby waters, climbing trees, chopping wood with gusto, organising contests for entertainment (rifle shooting, high kicking and sprinting) as well as the role of caravan mechanic. Ford had two Model T trucks outfitted with drinking water tanks and work tables for the cooks.
John Burroughs was the philosopher and nature-lover on the trips. A good deal older than the other campers, he enjoyed the role of instructor, taught bird calls, shared his knowledge of botany and led nature walks.
Over the decade in which the trips took place, they evolved from relaxing getaways to heavily promoted events that included numerous publicity stops covered by the press and the Ford Motor Company’s newsreel cameras. Historians often note that Edison’s greatest invention did not garner one of his famous 1093 patents; it was his propensity for self-promotion that may have been his utmost genius.
Similarly, Ford capitalised on his image as an “everyman” by using the camping trips as a means to promote the joys of recreational motoring, in turn, selling more Model T’s. It is no coincidence that tin-can tourism became the national rage at the same time that the “Vagabonds” highly-publicised camping trips took place.
The fact that two sitting United States Presidents, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge made appearances during the camping trips, illustrating the influence that Edison, Ford and Firestone wielded not just in business, but in politics.
Interestingly, the “Vagabonds” could not have chosen a more eventful decade to embark on their camping adventures. World War I ushered out the innocent turn-of-the-century era and heralded in the Roaring Twenties, a time that social, technological and communication developments reached new heights. From 1914 to 1924 the world experienced intense change, much of it wrought by the giants at the centre of the camping trips. The affordability of the automobile, due to Ford’s assembly line production, changed America from an agrarian to an urban nation in a relatively short period.
Edison’s legacy was perhaps even more apparent by this time. The accessibility of electrical power in the 1910’s and early 1920’s increased intensely, and changed the way in which people lived, worked, traveled and communicated.
Edison, Ford and Firestone were keenly aware of the role of politics and international affairs in their business success. It seems likely that their earliest discussions on the quandary of rubber availability may have occurred near the campfire, leading them to the incorporation of the Edison Botanic Research Corporation (1927), headquartered in Fort Myers, Florida, with a goal of raising and producing an organic source of rubber in the United States thus relieving the nation’s dependence on foreign rubber.
The colourful outdoor adventures of the famous friends spanned more than a decade of American history and captured the imagination and attention of the public. The Vagabonds’ camping trips amounted to much more than a group of famous men cavorting across the countryside enjoying time away from it all; the trips were an adventure into a rapidly changing America, a venue for self-promotion and political influence, as well as a means of exploration and discovery in the midst of a time of great international change.
ALL IN ALL GREAT FRIENDS WHO MADE JOBS FOR MILLIONS