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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.

summer, photographs, Henry Ford, Firestone family, John Burroughs, Vagabonds, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

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.

furnishings, camping, John Burroughs, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl, Henry Ford, Firestone family, Vagabonds

This year we're proud to celebrate what would have been the 150th birthday of our institute's founder, Henry Ford. Throughout the year we'll be sharing content and stories here on The Henry Ford's blog about one of America's greatest innovators.

Henry Ford 150 Years Chrome SealAt The Henry Ford, we often think and talk about Henry Ford, our institution’s founder. This is particularly true this year, which marks 150 years since Henry Ford was born. To commemorate this major milestone, we wanted to tackle a digitization project in Henry’s honor.

When it comes to our Henry Ford–related collections, the problem is narrowing down our vast holdings on all of Henry’s interests, activities, and businesses. A team of curators and educators from The Henry Ford had a series of meetings and discussions earlier this year, and came up with 17 topics that represent major themes in Henry’s life. After that, they made selections from our collections that best represent each of those themes. Their selections have now been digitized and are up on our collections website for anyone to browse.

The thing most identified with Henry Ford is the Model T, a car introduced in 1908 that was reasonably priced, reliable, and effective on the bad roads of the day. Three sets of collections items help tell this story. On the Way to the Model T shares some artifacts that show how Henry’s career progressed, such as the 1896 Quadricycle, the first car Henry ever built, and a 1901 photograph showing the race (featured above) that helped Henry gain notoriety and financial backing for his auto ventures. The Model T set shows a few of the Model T’s in the collections of the Henry Ford, including an early 1909 version, and also shows how quickly the Model T was assimilated into all aspects of daily life, from rural families to ingenious work applications. Post-Model T covers many of Henry’s business activities following the Model T, including the introduction of the V-8 engine and war production at Willow Run.

There was more to Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company than the Model T. A set represents the Assembly Line, from early inspirations for the idea (such as this slaughterhouse line) through many gradual refinements to the system, and another tackles the related $5 Day, which Ford implemented to win over critics of the assembly line system, like this outraged wife of a line worker. Two sets cover some of Ford’s non-automobile output: Tractors, including this experimental model from 1907 and the first production model of the popular Fordson tractor from a decade later; and Aviation, from the Ford Tri-Motor to the radio beacon.

Fordson Tractor, 1917, Used by Luther Burbank

One thing that makes Henry Ford such a fascinating figure 150 years after his birth was his wide breadth of interests, many of which tied back to his business activities. A set explores Henry’s interest in Soybeans, from an extremely dramatic presentation of the strength of soy plastics to photos of his working Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village (which still stands, now displaying agricultural artifacts). Another set discusses participation by Henry and the Ford Motor Company in various World’s Fairs, from the massive edifices erected to the exhibits inside.

Henry Ford Hitting Soybean Plastic Trunk with an Axe, 1940

A set on Village Industries, Henry Ford’s vision for small factories set in rural locations, shows the geographic coverage of these plants and also covers individual plants such as Nankin Mills. Another of Henry’s lifelong interests was social engineering, as demonstrated by the Sociological Department he established at Ford Motor Company. This is a story also covered on our website; the collections set we’ve created supplements the story with some of the statistics Ford collected on its employees and photographs taken during visits to employee homes.

Undesirable Home Surroundings Found on First Investigation, Ford Sociological Department, 1914-1915

Some of the sets give you a deeper glimpse into Henry’s life. A set covering his Youth demonstrates that from an early age Henry showed a fascination with both the mechanical and the natural world. His love of nature would persist and can later be seen in his frequent camping trips; a set on the Vagabonds, as he and his comrades called themselves, covers both stereotypical camping activities and objects that might lead one to suspect the Vagabonds were not exactly roughing it, like a photo of their extensive entourage.

Pocket Watch, 1850-1875 (Repaired by Young Henry Ford)

Not everything Henry did was a success. A set on his Failures covers some of the areas where Henry struggled, such as the Detroit Automobile Company and the Ford X-8 engine. Conversely, if you want to know where Henry got inspiration, check out some of his Heroes, from his mother to William Holmes McGuffey to Thomas Edison. To see Henry’s likeness captured at various seminal points in his life, from his teenage years through his final decade, check out our set of Portraits.

Portrait of Mary Litogot Ford, circa 1865

Finally, no review of our Henry Ford collections would be complete if we didn’t talk about ourselves just a bit. You can get a concise story of the founding of The Henry Ford, aka the Edison Institute, on our website, but we have now created a set of collections items related to the Founding of the Edison Institute as well. From the construction of the Museum building to our cornerstone, inscribed by Thomas Edison himself, these artifacts will give you a glimpse into the early days of The Henry Ford.

Cornerstone of Edison Institute Signed by Thomas A. Edison, Sept. 27, 1928

Check out all our Henry Ford collections sets via the list below and let us know what you think!

Henry Ford: On the Way to the Model T
Henry Ford: Model T
Henry Ford: Post-Model T
Henry Ford: Assembly Line
Henry Ford: $5 Day
Henry Ford: Tractors
Henry Ford: Aviation
Henry Ford: Soybeans
Henry Ford: World's Fair
Henry Ford: Village Industries
Henry Ford: Sociological Department
Henry Ford: Youth
Henry Ford: Vagabonds
Henry Ford: Henry Ford's Failures
Henry Ford: Heroes
Henry Ford: Portraits
Henry Ford: Founding of the Edison Institute

Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford, wishes Henry a happy 150th and thanks him kindly for founding this amazing collection.

Vagabonds, Ford Motor Company, educational resources, Model Ts, by Ellice Engdahl, digitization, Henry Ford

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.)

Henry Ford, President Harding, Harvey Firestone, Jr., and family dining on a camping trip to Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1921.

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.)

The Vagabonds service crew fixing a campfire meal, 1921.

Henry Ford and Clara Bryant Ford on vacation at the Grand Canyon, 1906.

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 collections images online, 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.

 

This short film is part of the Ford Historic Film Collection.  It and others like it, including another featuring the Vagabonds, are viewable on the Benson Ford Research Center's online catalog and on our YouTube channel.)  Books in our research library about the Vagabonds include Norman Brauer's chronicle of their trips, There to Breathe the Beauty.

 

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.)

"Cowboy" Henry Ford outside a tent, 1923.

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!). 

summer, John Burroughs, Firestone family, Henry Ford, by Rebecca Bizonet, Vagabonds, camping