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.
What began as an experimental partnership has turned into a much anticipated local tradition. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Henry Ford are teaming up once again in honor of our country’s birthday with its 21st annual Salute to America celebration, July 3-6 from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. each night. The pageantry of the evening will be a sheer delight marked by rich Americana music, a spectacular display of fireworks, and the thunderous sounds of cannon fire at the conclusion.
The decision to embark on a partnership for The Henry Ford and the DSO in 1992 was greeted with great enthusiasm, and marked the first time Greenfield Village presented an event of this scale.
“For the first decade of this program, the stage was set in front of Town Hall and seating was on and around the Village Green. It was a great venue but was limited in space,” explained Jim Johnson, Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.
In 2003 Greenfield Village underwent major restoration including the reconfiguration of buildings around the Village Green. The event planners realized a change in location was needed to accommodate the growing attendance and popularity of the event. In 2004 the program was moved to the Walnut Grove historic district in Greenfield Village where it continues to be hosted to this day, accommodating up to 8,500 attendees and offering ample room to spread out and hillside seating perfect for outdoor concert viewers.
“A great deal of planning goes into the execution of an event this large, but The Henry Ford and the DSO work well together,” explained Johnson. “We meet after each event, talk about any ideas for the next year’s program, then we meet again in mid-winter and begin to put together the upcoming program for July. Once set-up begins in the days before the event each team on both sides steps in and takes care of what is needed.”
The First Michigan Colonial Drum and Fife Corps will once again set the tone for the affair greeting guests with their melodic 18th century music reminiscent of early America while marching through Greenfield Village. The Corps has a long history with The Henry Ford with their debut performance at Greenfield Village in 1975. In addition, 19th and early 20th century games and activities will be offered for children of all ages through Greenfield Village’s Games on the Green program including a visit from members of Greenfield Village’s historic base ball team. Attendees are invited to pack a picnic or they may want to leave their baskets at home and indulge in a selection of the finest foods offered by The Henry Ford’s award-winning chefs, which will be available for purchase. Just before the DSO joins the stage, a prelude concert will be performed by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue.
The DSO begins its performance at 8:30 p.m. each night, and internationally renowned conductor, and DSO Music Director, Leonard Slatkin will lead the symphony this year in all four concerts. This is Slatkin’s fifth season with the DSO and the second time he has performed at Greenfield Village.
“I have conducted many patriotic programs and not only in the United States. Greenfield Village lays claim to an authentic representation of early life and these concerts reflect the heritage of our country,” Slatkin said of the event. In regard to the selection of arrangements for the full length concert, the Maestro said,” …the thrust of the music is American, and although some of the pieces are not exactly patriotic in nature they reflect the diversity of our culture.”
This year the DSO will be saluting John Williams -- one of the most recognized American composers of the modern age, best known for his film scores. “His contribution to America’s cultural life is priceless, and quite new for all of us are the extracts from his score ‘Lincoln’,” said Slatkin.
The concert will include about a dozen different selections with an intermission, and will conclude with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a fireworks display. When asked how this overture written to commemorate Russia’s feat over Napoleon’s army became adopted as an American patriotic score, Slatkin said, “This tradition began with the Boston Pops in the 1950’s. Of course it has nothing to do with America but the cannons and fireworks made it seem celebratory. I wish someone would write, perhaps, the ‘1776’ Overture.”
Perhaps this year’s event will be an inspiration to the Maestro himself to compose such an overture.
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!).