Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone met in Detroit at the turn-of-the-century, just as the Motor City was coming into its own. With a handshake, a deal was sealed. Firestone would be Ford’s main tire supplier. It was a relationship that was both professional and personal, and one that would last nearly 100 years.
The two men were like-minded, sharing a love of nature, old-fashioned ways, and dramatically rising success in their fields. In the early days, they started a tradition of camping together, along with Thomas Edison and nature essayist John Burroughs. They called themselves “the Four Vagabonds,” according to Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum. Two auto industry giants, an inventor and a nature writer in a motorized caravan of 50 chauffeured Ford vehicles, and an entourage of cooks, attendants, wives, and children. These well-publicized, annual camping trips cemented a lifelong friendship between the men, and particularly the two auto moguls.
“It often seemed to me,” Burroughs joked, “that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.”
Each man had his own 10-foot canvas tent monogrammed with his name, equipped with a cot and mattress. When the sun went down, Edison lit up the campsite with lamps and a generator he invented.
From 1914-24, their travels took them through the Everglades, the Appalachians and the Adirondacks. Each man had a specific assignment. Edison was the navigator, perched upon the lead vehicle, compass in hand. “We never know where we are going,” Firestone joked, “and I suspect that he doesn’t either.” Firestone was responsible for the food, kitchen tent and cooks. Burroughs organized nature walks pointing out interesting plants and animals. Being the mechanical one, Ford was, obviously, in charge of all automotive repairs, which were plentiful.
Edison would pick a spot to stop and Ford would ask the farmer if they could camp on his land. They would stay for two or three nights. During their stops, the men chopped firewood, rode horses, climbed trees, napped, challenged each other to games of skill and strength, and even high kicking contests. They ate their meals around a giant lazy-Susan-style table.
Edison often searched for sap that could potentially be an ingredient in synthetic rubber for Firestone’s tires. Ford and Edison liked to calculate how much hydroelectric power a stream could generate. In the evenings, they’d stay up late discussing war, politics, business and science.
“Around the campfire, 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,” Burroughs wrote. “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.”
These famous trips drew crowds who gathered to watch the caravan as it passed by. It also attracted two U.S. presidents, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, who joined along at times, secret service on hand to secure the surrounding woods.
When an employee informed Ford that his voyages had cost him $465,000, the auto baron tried to look on the bright side. “Well,” he said, “we got a million dollars’ worth of advertising out of it.”
Besides a great source of advertising for Ford and Firestone, the expeditions were responsible for the creation of the charcoal briquette. Edward G. Kingsford was once invited to join the group by Ford, his wife’s cousin, so the two men could discuss the possibility of using Michigan timber in the Model T (frame, wheel spokes, dash and running board). Kingsford helped Ford acquire his own timberland and build a sawmill.
One downside of the sawmill was the wasted stumps, branches and sawdust. Apparently, Ford was well known for being unable to tolerate waste of any kind. A chemist invented a method to make lumps of fuel from the mill bits and pieces, combined with tar and bound with cornstarch. Edison designed the factory and Kingsford ran it.
Camping journeys aside, the Ford and Firestone families also grew close. Closer than anyone might have guessed. In 1948, Firestone’s granddaughter Martha married Ford’s grandson William. Their marriage turned friends into family and tied the two families together forever. The couple raised four children including Bill, Henry’s and Harvey’s great-grandson and Ford’s current CEO.
Burroughs died in the spring of 1921. That summer, the Four Vagabonds traveled as a threesome. It became one of their last.
In 1931 when Thomas Edison died, his son gave Ford a sealed test tube that supposedly contained Edison’s “last breath.” The test tube is on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
The men had become too well known to continue their outings. Firestone complained that rest and relaxation had turned into a circus. Ironically, it was joked the men used the trips to escape the pressures of a modern civilization their inventions helped create. Perhaps, but some say they’re also responsible for sparking a national obsession with camping that 40-million Americans annually carry on to this day.