In 1914, four influential men — Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs — loaded their automobiles with camping gear and embarked on the first of several historic road trips. They called themselves the “Vagabonds,” and they toured places like the Everglades, the California coast, and the forests of Vermont for two weeks nearly every summer for 10 years.
The white-bearded Burroughs chronicled one such trip — the Vagabond journey to the Great Smoky Mountains — in a chapter of his book “Under the Maples.”
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Burroughs’ Photos of the 1918 Trip – Slate.com
Under The Elms – Full Text of John Burrough’s Book. Free Kindle Download
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – National Park Service Website
Thomas Edison National Historical Park – National Park Service Website
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The ubiquitous road trip, now as much of a part of the American identity as apple pie and banjos, came into the public consciousness largely due to a man synonymous will the automobile, along with a few of his famous friends.
When Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the market in 1908, the famous nature essayist John Burroughs condemned it as a “demon on wheels” that would “seek out even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul it with noise and smoke.” Ford, also fan of the outdoors, believed his affordable car would allow families greater access to the beauties of our landscape. He sent Burroughs, whom he had long admired, his own new Model T, sparking a great friendship.
Ford introduced Burroughs to two other famous American industrialists: inventor Thomas Edison and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. In 1914, coinciding with the beginning of World War 1, the four influential men loaded their automobiles with camping gear and embarked on the first of several historic road trips.
They called themselves the “Vagabonds,” and they toured places like the Everglades, the California coast, and the forests of Vermont for two weeks nearly every summer for 10 years. Paved roads were sparse, often peppered with hand-drawn road signs.
Edison navigated, with a compass and maps. Service stations were rare, so Ford kept the cars running. Burroughs led nature hikes.
Though the men slept in tents, they were hardly roughing it. The Vagabonds traveled with dozens of Fords cars, a battalion of assistants, a film crew, and a refrigerator and stove truck. They had a huge dinner table that spun like a lazy susan. Their tents were monogrammed with their names, and the camp was illuminated by Edison’s lamps and portable generator.
The white-bearded Burroughs chronicled one such trip in a chapter of a his book Under the Maples. The chapter, entitled “A Strenuous Holiday” is our story today. We’ve edited it slightly but what you’re about to hear is Burroughs entire account of the 1918 Vagabond journey to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Before we begin, the story we’re about to tell ignores some truths about both Ford and Edison, particularly that Ford was vehemently anti-semetic, and Edison held public demonstrations torturing and electrocuting animals to try and prove Tesla’s AC power dangerous. For these reasons, as well as his eloquent writing, we focus here on John Burroughs. This story also uses the term “Gypsy” on a couple occasions, which is now considered by many Romani people as a racial slur.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
One August a few years ago I set out with some friends for a two weeks’ automobile trip into the land of Dixie—joy-riders with a luxurious outfit calculated to be proof against any form of discomfort.
We were headed for the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. I confess that mountains and men that do not smoke suit me better. Still I can stand both, and I started out with the hope that the great Appalachian range held something new and interesting for me. Yet I knew it was a risky thing for an octogenarian to go a-gypsying, and with younger men. Old blood does not warm up easily over the things that moved one so deeply when one was younger. More than that, what did I need of an outing? All the latter half of my life has been an outing, and an “inning” seemed more in order. Then, after fourscore years, the desire for change, for new scenes and new people, is at low ebb. The old and familiar draw more strongly. Yet I was fairly enlisted and bound to see the Old Smokies.
Pennsylvania is an impressive State, so vast, so diversified, so forest-clad—the huge unbroken Alleghany ranges with their deep valleys cutting across it from north to south; the world of fine farms and rural homesteads in the eastern half, and the great mining and manufacturing interests in the western, the source of noble rivers; and the storehouse of many of Nature’s most useful gifts to man.
The great Lincoln Highway, of course, follows the line of least resistance, but it has some formidable obstacles to surmount, and it goes at them very deliberately; and, in a powerful car, gives one a sense of easy victory. But I smile as I remember persons with lighter cars standing beside them at the foot of those long, winding ascents, nursing and encouraging them, preparing them for the heavy task before them. An almost perfect road, worthy of its great namesake, but an Alleghany range which you cannot get around or through gives the automobilist pause.
As we were hurled along over the great highway the things I remember with the most satisfaction were the groups or processions of army trucks we met coming east. The doom of kaiserism was written large on that Lincoln Highway in that army of resolute, slow-moving trucks. Dumb, khaki-colored fighters on wheels, staunch, powerful-looking, a host of them, rolling eastward toward the seat of war, some loaded with soldiers, some with camp equipments, and all hinting of the enormous resources the fatuous Kaiser had let loose upon himself in this far-off land. On other highways the weapons and materials of war were converging toward the great seaports in the same way. The silent, grim, processions—how impressive they were!
Pittsburgh is a city that sits with its feet in or very near the lake of brimstone and fire and its head in the sweet country air of the hill-tops. I think I got nearer the infernal regions there than I ever did in any other city in this country. One is fairly suffocated at times driving along the public highway on a bright, breezy August day. It might well be the devil’s laboratory. Out of such blackening and blasting fumes comes our civilization. That weapons of war and of destructiveness should come out of such pits and abysses of hell-fire seemed fit and natural, but much more comes out of them—much that suggests the pond-lily rising out of the black slime and muck of the lake bottoms.
We live in an age of iron and have all we can do to keep the iron from entering our souls. Our vast industries have their root in the geologic history of the globe as in no other past age. We delve for our power, and it is all barbarous and unhandsome. When the coal and oil are all gone and we come to the surface and above the surface for the white coal, for the smokeless oil, for the winds and the sunshine, how much more attractive life will be! Our very minds ought to be cleaner. We may never hitch our wagons to the stars, but we can hitch them to the mountain streams, and make the summer breezes lift our burdens. Then the silver age will displace the iron age.
The western end of Pennsylvania is one vast coal-mine. The farmer has only to dig into the side of the hill back of his house and take out his winter’s fuel. I was surprised to see how smooth and gentle and grassy the hills looked. It is a cemetery of the old carboniferous gods, and it seems to have been prepared by gentle hands and watched over with kindly care. Good crops of hay and grain were growing above their black remains, and rural life seemed to go on in the usual way. The shuffling and the deformation of the earth’s surface which attended the laying down of the coal-beds is not anywhere evident. The hand of that wonderful husbandman, Father Time, has smoothed it all out.
Our first camp was at Greensborough, thirty or more miles southeast of Pittsburgh, an ideal place, but the night was chilly. Folding camp-cots are poor conservers of one’s bodily warmth, and until you get the hang of them and equip yourself with plenty of blankets, Sleep enters your tent very reluctantly. She tarried with me but briefly, and at three or four in the morning I got up, replenished the fire, and in a camp-chair beside it indulged in the “long, long thoughts” which belong to age much more than to youth. Youth was soundly and audibly sleeping in the tents with no thoughts at all.
The talk that first night around the camp-fire gave us an inside view of many things about which we were much concerned. The ship question was the acute question of the hour and we had with us for a few days Commissioner Hurley, of the Shipping Board, who could give us first-hand information, which he did to our great comfort.
Our next stop was near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where for that night we slept indoors.
On the following day one of the big cars had an accident—the fan broke, and the iron punctured the radiator. It looked as if we should be delayed until a new radiator could be forwarded from Pittsburgh. We made our way slowly to Connellsville, where there was a good garage, but the best workmen there shook their heads; they said a new radiator was the only remedy. All four arms of the fan were broken off and there was no way to mend them. This verdict put Mr. Ford on his mettle. “Give me a chance,” he said, and, pulling off his coat and rolling up his sleeves, he fell to work. In two hours we were ready to go ahead. By the aid of drills and copper wire the master mechanic had stitched the severed arms to their stubs, soldered up the hole in the radiator, and the disabled car was again in running order.
On August the 21st we made our camp on the banks of a large, clear creek in West Virginia called Horseshoe Run. A smooth field across the road from the creek seemed attractive, and I got the reluctant consent of the widow who owned it to pitch our camp there. But Edison was not attracted by the widow’s open field; the rough, grassy margin of the creek suited him better, and its proximity to the murmuring, eddying, rocky current appealed to us all, albeit it necessitated our mess-tent being pitched astride a shallow gully, and our individual tents elbowing one another in the narrow spaces between the boulders. But wild Nature, when you can manage her, is what the camper-out wants. Pure elements—air, water, earth—these settle the question; Camp Horseshoe Run had them all.
An interesting object near our camp was an old, unused grist-mill, with a huge, decaying overshot oaken water-wheel. We all perched on the wheel and had our pictures taken.
At our lunch that day, by the side of a spring, a twelve-year-old girl appeared in the road above us with a pail of apples for sale. We took all of her apples. I can see her yet with her shining eyes as she crumpled the new one-dollar bill which one of the party placed in her hand. She did not look at it; the feel of it told the story to her. We quizzed her about many things and got straight, clear-cut answers—a very firm, level-headed little maid. Her home was on the hill above us. We told her the names of some of the members of the party, and after she had returned home we saw an aged man come out to the gate and look down upon us. An added interest was felt whenever we came in contact with any of the local population. Birds and flowers and trees and springs and mills were something, but human flowers and rills of human life were better. I do not forget the other maiden, twelve or thirteen years old, to whom we gave a lift of a few miles on her way. She had been on a train five times, and once had been forty miles from home. Her mother was dead and her father lived in Pennsylvania, and she was living with her grandfather. When asked how far it was to Elkins she said, “Ever and ever so many miles.”
August the 22nd we reached Cheat River in West Virginia, a large, clear mountain trout-brook. It crossed our path many times that day. Every mountain we crossed showed us Cheat River on the other side of it. It was flowing by a very devious course northwest toward the Ohio. We were working south and east.
We made our camp that night on the grounds of the Cheat Mountain Club, on the banks of the river—an ideal spot. The people at the big clubhouse gave us a hospitable welcome and added much to our comfort. I found the forests and streams of this part of West Virginia much like those of the Catskills, only on a larger scale, and the climate even colder. That night the mercury dropped to thirty.
We made camp at Bolar Springs on August the 23d—a famous spring, and a beautiful spot. We pitched our tents among the sugar maples, and some of the party availed themselves of the public bathhouse that spanned the overflow of the great spring. The next night our camp was at Wolf Creek, not far from the Narrows—a beautiful spot, marred only by its proximity to the dusty highway. It was on the narrow, grassy margin of a broad, limpid creek in which the fish were jumping. Some grazing horses disturbed my sleep early in the morning, but on the whole I have only pleasant memories of our camp at Wolf Creek.
We were near a week in Virginia and West Virginia, crossing many times the border between the two States, now in one, then in the other, all the time among the mountains, with a succession of glorious views from mountain-tops and along broad, fertile valleys. Now we were at Warm Springs, then at Hot Springs, then at White Sulphur, or at Sweet Water Springs. Soft water and hard water, cold water and warm water, mineral water and trout-streams, companion one another in these mountains. This part of the continent got much folded and ruptured and mixed up in the building, and the elements are unevenly distributed.
One of our camps we named Camp Lee, the name of the owner of the farm. One of the boys there, Robert E. Lee, made himself very useful in bringing wood and doing other errands.
A privation, which I think Mr. Edison and I felt more than did the others, was the scanty or delayed war news; the local papers, picked up here and there, gave only brief summaries, and when in the larger towns we could get some of the great dailies, the news was a day or two old. When one has hung on the breath of the newspapers for four exciting years, one is lost when cut off from them.
Such a trip as we were taking was, of course, a kind of a lark, especially to the younger members of the party. Upon Alleghany Mountain, near Barton, West Virginia, a farmer was cradling oats on a side-hill below the road. Our procession stopped, and the irrepressible Ford and Firestone were soon taking turns at cradling oats, but with doubtful success. A photograph shows the farmer and Mr. Ford looking on with broad smiles, watching Mr. Firestone with the fingers of the cradle tangled in the oats and weeds, a smile on his face also, but decidedly an equivocal smile—the trick was not so easy as it looked. Evidently Mr. Ford had not forgotten his cradling days on the home farm in Michigan.
Camp-life is a primitive affair, no matter how many conveniences you have, and things of the mind keep pretty well in the background. Occasionally around the camp-fire we drew Edison out on chemical problems, and heard formula after formula come from his lips as if he were reading them from a book. As a practical chemist he perhaps has few, if any, equals in this country. It was easy to draw out Mr. Ford on mechanical problems. There is always pleasure and profit in hearing a master discuss his own art.
A plunge into the South for a Northern man is in many ways a plunge into the Past. As soon as you get into Virginia there is a change. Things and people in the South are more local and provincial than in the North. For the most part, in certain sections, at least, the county builds the roads, and not the State. Hence you pass from a fine stone road in one county on to a rough dirt road in the next. Toll-gates appear. In one case we paid toll at the rate of two cents a mile for the cars, and five cents for the trucks. Grist-mills are seen along the way, driven by overshot wheels, and they are usually at work. A man or a boy on horseback, with a bag of grain or of meal behind him, going to or returning from the mill, is a frequent sight; or a woman on horseback, on a sidesaddle, with a baby in her arms, attracts your attention.
Among the old-fashioned features of the South much to be commended are the large families. In a farmhouse near which we made camp one night there were thirteen children, the eldest of whom was at the front in France. The schools were in session in late August, and the schoolrooms were well filled with pupils.
No doubt there are many peculiar local customs of which the hurrying tourist gets no inkling. At a station in the mountains of North Carolina a youngish, well-clad countryman, smoking his pipe, stood within a few feet of my friend and me and gazed at us with the simple, blank curiosity of a child. He belongs to a type one often sees in the mountain districts of the South—good human stuff, valiant as soldiers, and industrious as farmers, but so unacquainted with the great outside world, their unsophistication is shocking to see.
It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort, for discomfort in several forms—dust, rough roads, heat, cold, irregular hours, accidents—is pretty sure to come. But discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.
Our two chief characters presented many contrasts: Mr. Ford is more adaptive, more indifferent to places, than is Mr. Edison. His interest in the stream is in its potential water-power. He races up and down its banks to see its fall, and where power could be developed. He never ceases to lament so much power going to waste, and points out that if the streams were all harnessed, as they could easily be, farm labor everywhere, indoors and out, could be greatly lessened. He is always thinking in terms of the greatest good to the greatest number. He aims to place his inventions within reach of the great mass of the people. As with his touring-car, so with his tractor engine, he has had the same end in view. Nor does he forget the housewife. He has plans afoot for bringing power into every household that will greatly lighten the burden of the women-folk.
Partly owing to his more advanced age, but mainly, no doubt, to his meditative and introspective cast of mind, Mr. Edison is far less active than is Mr. Ford. When we would pause for the midday lunch, or to make camp at the end of the day, Mr. Edison would sit in his car and read, or curl up, boy fashion, under a tree and take a nap, while Mr. Ford would inspect the stream or busy himself in getting wood for the fire. Mr. Ford is a runner and a high kicker, and frequently challenged some of the party to race with him. He is also a persistent walker, and from every camp, both morning and evening, he sallied forth for a brisk half-hour walk. His cheerfulness and adaptability on all occasions, and his optimism in regard to all the great questions, are remarkable. His good-will and tolerance are boundless. Notwithstanding his practical turn of mind, and his mastery of the mechanical arts and of business methods, he is through and through an idealist. Those who meet him are invariably drawn to him. He is a national figure, and the crowds that flock around the car in which he is riding, as we pause in the towns through which we pass, are not paying their homage merely to a successful car-builder or business man, but to a beneficent human force, a great practical idealist whose good-will and spirit of universal helpfulness they have all felt. He has not only brought pleasure and profit into their lives, but has illustrated and written large upon the pages of current history a new ideal of the business man—that of a man whose devotion to the public good has been a ruling passion, and whose wealth has inevitably flowed from the depth of his humanitarianism. He has taken the people into partnership with him, and has eagerly shared with them the benefits that are the fruit of his great enterprise—a liberator, an emancipator, through channels that are so often used to enslave or destroy.
In one respect, essentially the same thing may be said of Mr. Edison: his first and leading thought has been, “What can I do to make life easier and more enjoyable to my fellow-men? He is a great chemist, a trenchant and original thinker on all the great questions of life, though he has delved but little into the world of art and literature—a practical scientist, plus a meditative philosopher of profound insight. And his humor is delicious. We delighted in his wise and witty sayings. A good camper-out, he turns vagabond very easily, can go with hair disheveled and clothes unbrushed as long as the best of us, and can rough it week in and week out and wear that benevolent smile. He eats so little that I think he was not tempted by the chicken-roosts or turkey-flocks along the way, nor by the cornfields and apple-orchards, as some of us were, but he is second to none in his love for the open and for wild nature.
Mr. Firestone belongs to an entirely different type—the clean, clear-headed, conscientious business type; always on his job, always ready for whatever comes; in no sense an outdoor man; always at the service of those around him; a man generous, kindly, appreciative, devoted to his family and his friends; sound in his ideas—a manufacturer who has faithfully and honestly served his countrymen.
It is after he gets home that a meditative man really makes such a trip. All the unpleasant features are strained out or transformed. In retrospect it is all enjoyable, even the discomforts. I am aware that I was often irritable and ungracious, but my companions were tolerant, and gave little heed to the flitting moods of an octogenarian. Now, at this distance, and sitting beside my open fire at Slabsides, I look upon the whole trip with unmixed pleasure.
In 1921, the Vagabonds welcomed one of Firestone’s longtime friends on the trip: President Warren Harding. They also hauled along a player piano and wooden dancing platform. Newspapers ran headlines such as “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation” and “Genius to Sleep Under Stars.” People streamed into theaters to watch the silent movies that Ford’s film crew shot on the road. And Americans began to discover on their own the joys of a family road trip to places like our national parks.
Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National park is our most visited, receiving nearly double the number of visitors as the second-most attended Grand Canyon, in large part due to it being one of the only major National Parks in the East, accessible in a day drive to 1/3 of the US population. But the Smokies are “Great,” there’s plenty of room for those 12 million poeple a year, most of whom just drive through.
You can also visit Thomas Edison’s home and laboratory at the Thomas Ediston National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Take a step back in time to when machines were run by belts and pulleys and music was played on phonographs. His laboratory remains just as it did on the day he died.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
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