At the turn of the century, industry and innovation in America were exploding. High-profile industrialists became like celebrities, marketing their personas as much as their products. As part of this desire to promote their brands, a quartet of some of the most influential men in the country at that time embarked on the quintessential road trip, perhaps even the automobile tour of the country that sparked the concept altogether. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs traversed the country by automobile, camping in style along the way, from 1914-1924. One can imagine that it would be the equivalent of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson travelling the country today.
The group called themselves “The Vagabonds,” and they caused a stir wherever they went. Because their travels were publicized, they would be met with crowds of locals anytime they would stop to refuel or rest. The group traveled in several luxury cars, with other cars behind hauling their extensive “camping” gear. Their style of camping would probably be called “glamping” today, as it involved setting up numerous large tents with furnishings, as well as an entirely separate kitchen area, complete with every necessary tool and ingredient.
The message that was sent by their journey was key to these journeys. Most of the men were advanced in years, and carefully staged photos solidified their images as rugged, manly, and self-reliant. Images showed them having wood chopping contests, making their own food over a fire, and scaling mountains. It was important to note that they were always portrayed as “roughing it,” though they would occasionally stay overnight at a hotel to clean up and have a night’s comfort in a real bed.
The partners were carefully chosen. Thomas Edison, the inventor and visionary; Henry Ford, the innovator and advocate for the needs of everyday people; Harvey Firestone, the tire manufacturer and self-made man; and John Burroughs, the naturalist, known for his skepticism of progress and technology. By having this group travel the country, they demonstrated all ages and perspectives in favor of the wonder of car travel. Their travels so popularized road trips, that they could be credited with inventing them.
Prior to the Vagabonds travels, Thomas Edison was known for his own lengthy road tours as well. One such journey took place in June 1906, when Edison and his private entourage drove from New York state to Lake Toxaway to stay at the luxury inn that was once there. The Sylvan Valley News (the precursor to the Transylvania Times) reported that the innkeeper had a lovely conversation with Edison in which he complimented the beautiful countryside there. The Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room has a hotel registry that shows Edison’s signature, confirming that he stayed there on June 5, 1906.
Perhaps it was this stay that inspired the later travels of the Vagabonds, though there isn’t enough documentation to prove that assumption with complete accuracy. It does show the beginning of a leisure pursuit of traveling back roads and byways in America that still continues to hold the interest of many travelers. Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.