The Columbus Buggy Company’s sprawling factory, depicted as it was in 1889. / THF124829
When we hear the name “Firestone,” our thoughts inevitably turn to motor vehicle tires, proving themselves where the rubber meets the road. It’s a bit surprising, then, to learn that members of the Firestone family were building horse-drawn vehicles decades before the first Model T turned a wheel.
Clinton Firestone, in partnership with the brothers George and Oscar Peters, established the Columbus Buggy Company in Columbus, Ohio, in 1875. The firm grew into one of the largest buggy manufacturers in the world. By 1900, it employed more than 1,000 people and operated branch offices throughout the United States.
Clinton Firestone was a first cousin to Benjamin Firestone. Benjamin was a prosperous farmer in Columbiana, Ohio, and the father to future tire magnate Harvey Firestone. (Greenfield Village visitors will recognize the brick farmhouse that Benjamin and Catherine Firestone called home.) After a stint selling patent medicines and flavor extracts, young Harvey went to work at his cousin Clinton’s buggy company in the early 1890s. Harvey Firestone bounced between bookkeeping and sales duties at branch offices in Columbus, Des Moines, and Detroit. He remained with the firm until 1896. Four years later, he established his own business selling rubber buggy tires—the famous Firestone Tire & Rubber.
Harvey Firestone, pictured here about 1920, worked at several Columbus Buggy Company branch offices throughout the Midwest. / THF124780
Working in sales, Harvey Firestone was a first-hand witness to one of the problems that led to Columbus Buggy’s demise. While the company offered well-built wagons priced around $100, a growing number of competitors, like Durant-Dort, offered similar-quality wagons for around $35. Some buyers continued to pay the premium for Columbus Buggy’s perceived prestige, but most were content to get a comparable vehicle elsewhere for one-third the price.
There was another problem too: the horseless carriage. Columbus Buggy tackled that challenge by introducing an automobile of its own in 1903. Despite a marvelous slogan—“A vehicle for the masses, not a toy for the classes”—the $750, ten-horsepower high-wheeler auto could not save the firm. Columbus Buggy Company went bankrupt in 1913.
Harvey Firestone, of course, did make a successful transition into the new motorized world. In 1906, Firestone Tire & Rubber secured its first contract to supply Ford Motor Company with automobile tires. That prosperous business relationship grew into a lifelong personal friendship between Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford’s Columbus Buggy Company surrey.
In 2015, The Henry Ford acquired a beautifully-restored Model 300½ four-passenger surrey manufactured by Columbus Buggy. Open-sided surreys were a favorite warm-weather conveyance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Ask anyone who’s seen Oklahoma!) Given the Columbus Buggy Company’s family ties, the surrey was an ideal fit for programming use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. A surrey of this style and quality would have been within the means of an upper middle-class family like the Firestones—the sort of carriage they might have taken to church on Sunday, or to town on social calls.
Automobiles may have put the Columbus Buggy Company out of business, but we’re glad to keep a little part of its legacy rolling along.
Elizabeth Parke was a trim, blue-eyed beauty. The daughter of a prosperous merchant in Decatur, Illinois, she was full of life and adventure. Elizabeth loved to dance and enjoyed parties. Good thing, too; she met her handsome, intelligent, wealthy husband-to-be at a dance at Princeton about 1920. Young Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., the son of the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, must have found her to be a spirited partner. He learned to fly airplanes during World War I and she did not seem to mind climbing in one with him. The Firestones often traveled for business and pleasure. Elizabeth enjoyed trekking through jungles and sleeping in grass huts in exotic locales as much as she relished dining in sumptuous hotels with royalty.
Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion. As a teenager, she attended school in Europe , studying French and learning about applied and fine arts. Family notebooks include some early costume sketches in her hand for theatrical presentations. Family members recall that young Elizabeth designed and sewed many of her own fashions before her marriage in Decatur on June 25, 1921.
Over about a decade in the early part of the 20th century, a quartet including Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, businessman Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs took a series of summer camping trips, sometimes inviting others along for part or all of the journey. The group, calling themselves the Vagabonds, took trips that might not exactly qualify as “roughing it”—they travelled with a caravan of vehicles, a full contingent of service staff, and many comforts of home including furniture and china tableware. We’ve just digitized dozens of photos of the Vagabonds in action, including this photo of the group having breakfast at a large lazy susan–equipped wooden table. View more than 100 photos and artifacts related to the Vagabonds by visiting The Henry Ford’s digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
An always-popular spot in Greenfield Village is the working Firestone Farm House, where visitors can observe daily chores similar to those of an American farm in the 1880s. However, Firestone Farm House has a history that elevates it above the ordinary—it was where Harvey Firestone, who would later found Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, was born. We’ve just digitized some of our materials about the Firestone family and the farm, including this photo of the house on its original site, with young Harvey and his family on the front porch. Visit our digital collections to explore our Firestone materials from a number of angles: objects related to Harvey Firestone himself, objects related to the extended Firestone family, or objects related to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.
Friends Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs went on camping trips together for a number of years, calling themselves the Vagabonds. Their trips were quite luxurious, by camping standards, involving a sizable caravan of staff and equipment. Why eat off tinware, for example, when one could use china instead? The Henry Ford’s collection includes a selection of the early 20th century Tudor Rose china that these august figures used on their wilderness trips, including the bouillon cup shown here. View photos and artifacts related to the Vagabonds on our collections website.
Dress, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1950 (Object ID: 92.263.43)
Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990) was destined to develop a refined sense of fashion. Born the daughter of a wealthy Decatur, Ill., businessman, she was given the opportunity to study in Europe in her mid-teens. Through this adventure she developed a deep appreciation for French culture, particularly French decorative arts. She also nurtured a lifelong love of dancing, which influenced not only her fashion sense but her choice of spouse.
Elizabeth met Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., at a dance. Their 1921 wedding was the union of two well-established business families, and their celebration was the most lavish Decatur had ever seen. It began a 52-year marriage, during which the couple raised four children at "Twin Oaks," their Akron, Ohio, home. They also maintained homes in New York City and Newport, R.I.
Elizabeth's background prepared her well for her role of representing her husband and family in the most influential business and social circles of the time. She joined her husband on business trips, traveling the United States, Europe and Asia throughout their marriage. She looked to both the New York and Paris fashion scenes to find couturiers who met her style standards, then worked through both correspondence and visits to modify their designs to fit her best features.
Evening Dress, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1947
Elizabeth was meticulous about her looks, leaving no detail unattended. Her fair skin became radiant when she wore pinks and blues, and most of her clothing can be found in variations of these shades. Multiple matching gloves, shoes, purses and hats were commissioned for each outfit, so that replacements would be readily available in case of damage.
Trim, blonde and blue-eyed, Elizabeth looked stunning in designer gowns and was frequently photographed for fashion and society magazines. Well into her 50s her fashions were the talk of society, and her style-both classy and classic-was frequently noted in the press. In the 1950s she was named one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World" by the Couture Group of the New York Dress Institute along with the Duchess of Windsor and Hollywood actresses including Olivia de Havilland.
Prior to her death, Elizabeth and her family realized that the clothing she owned offered a rich and sweeping view of fashion history to future generations, and a large segment of her wardrobe was donated to The Henry Ford. Today that collection includes more than 1,000 dresses, shoes, gloves and other accessories, from early home-sewn creations including her wedding dress to custom-made American and European designer fashions. Each dress is truly a work of art, crafted by inventive couturiers for a patron who not only collaborated on the result, but well understood the contribution each made to the life of her family and the society of the day.
Now that school's out and summer is here, many of us turn our thoughts to vacation and travel. Camping has long been a way for Americans to spend time relaxing with their families and friends and experiencing the beauties and wonders of nature — and sometimes just being a kid again.
Between 1915 and 1924, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, tire magnate Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs (who took part 1916-1920), calling themselves "the Four Vagabonds," embarked on a series of summer camping trips. Others joined the group at various times, among them family, business associates and politicians, including U.S. presidents. (Photo found here.)
Over the years, the group crisscrossed the mountains, valleys and scenic countryside of Upstate New York, the New England states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia,Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The group traveled in style and their adventures were well-documented and publicized. Equipment used by the party included a folding circular camp table with lazy Susan seating twenty (pictured above), a twenty-square-foot dining tent, sleeping tents with mosquito netting, a gasoline stove and a refrigerated Lincoln camping truck. A professional chef prepared the group's meals and film crews and numerous outside journalists followed in their wake. Ford complained of the attention and its hampering effects on their trips, but there are strong indications that he nevertheless relished the publicity. (Photos found here and here.)
Yet Henry Ford's interest in nature was not new or merely a public relations gambit. Here he is with Clara at the Grand Canyon in 1906. They were avid birders and had over 500 birdhouses installed amid the naturalistic landscaping (designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen) of their Fair Lane Estate. John Burroughs helped them rehabilitate the adjoining land and reintroduce wildlife to the area.
In addition to the collectionsimagesonline, we've also digitized films of the Vagabonds. Here, John Burroughs plants a tree; the group walks, dines and relaxes at the campsite; and Henry Ford climbs a tree.
Even more still images from our photographic collections featuring the Vagabonds are available on our Flickr page. Here's Henry clowning around in a cowboy getup. (Below photo found here.)
Though executed on a grander scale than most camping trips, the Vagabonds' journeys spoke to a desire, shared by millions of Americans, to get back to the beauties of nature and, as Burroughs wrote, to "be not a spectator of, but a participator in, it all!"*
*(Burroughs, John. Our Vacation Days of 1918. Privately printed by Harvey Firestone, ca. 1918-1920s.)
Rebecca Bizonet is former archivist at the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. When she's not helping preserve and provide access to her institution's vast and rich archival holdings, she enjoys exploring Michigan's scenic highways (and finds the many opportunities for great whitefish and pasties, not to mention the scenic historic and natural wonders, more than make up for not having a personal chef in tow!).