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'Vagabonds' didn't exactly rough it

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They called themselves "The Vagabonds."

Almost a century ago, long before travel trailers and motor homes became popular, four well-known public figures wandered the countryside in a caravan of trucks, camping and hiking and fishing their way through the East, the Southeast and the Midwest.

In 1918 and 1921, they came through West Virginia, where they created a bit of a stir. You see, folks tend to notice when wagon trains of six vehicles come rolling into town, especially when they stop and Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and John Burroughs disembark to see the sights or pick up a few supplies.

Younger folks might not recognize the names, but back then those guys were as famous as Microsoft's Bill Gates or General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt are today. Ford was founder and CEO of Ford Motors; Firestone was founder and CEO of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.; Edison was "that fellow who invented the light bulb;" and Burroughs, though not a captain of industry, was a prominent naturalist and writer.

The idea of taking summer vacations together was born in 1914, when Ford and Burroughs visited Edison in Florida. The three men toured the Everglades together. A year later, when Ford, Edison and Firestone were in California for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, they motored from Riverside to San Diego together.

The next year, in 1916, they consolidated their summer vacation plans and embarked on the first of the "official" Vagabond outings, a motor caravan through the Adirondacks of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

The men fancied themselves to be rugged outdoorsmen. Burroughs wrote that they would "cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more."

Well, not quite.

On that first outing, the Vagabonds rode in two Packards, two Ford Model Ts and two Ford trucks. Seven drivers and helpers accompanied the famous campers. The men slept in 10-by-10 foot walled tents and ate staff-prepared meals in a 20-by-20 foot dining tent.

Despite the relative luxury of their camping setup, the Vagabonds were anything but sedentary. Ford was an avid birder and often chopped the camp's firewood. Burroughs liked to fish. Edison, ever the inventor, hunted for minerals and studied streams' potential for hydropower generation. Firestone liked to visit local industries.

Not much can be found about the Vagabonds' 1918 visit to West Virginia. The caravan began in Pennsylvania and traveled through the Mountain State on its way south to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

They apparently camped at a place called Camp Horse Shoe near Lead Mine, Preston County. There they visited a logging railroad, where they posed for a photo in front of a Shay locomotive; and a gristmill, where they posed for another photo atop the mill's weathered old waterwheel.

Their second visit, to the Elkins area in 1921, got cut short by weather and two of the industrialists' business responsibilities. Burroughs had died that spring at the ripe old age of 83, but President Warren G. Harding and prominent Methodist bishop William F. Anderson did make the trip.

Heavy rains and impassable muddy roads prevented the caravan from traveling from their camp at Muddy Creek Falls, Md., to the Elkins area on July 30. The weather improved enough for them to make the trip the following day.

The campers arrived late in the day, but their camping gear didn't. They stayed the night at the present-day Cheat Mountain Lodge near Cheat Bridge. The following day, when their gear arrived, they set up camp along Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.

While there, both Firestone and Ford received word of urgent business they each had to address. On Aug. 2, the party broke camp and drove to Fairmont. They wanted to head toward Wheeling, but heavy rains forced them to follow the Monongahela River north through Morgantown and into Pennsylvania.

The Vagabonds' annual outings continued until 1924. Ford complained at the time that the group's exploits had become too well known, and that the outings had grown so much in size that their logistics had become difficult to manage.

Their vacations covered just a decade, but the Vagabonds' legacy lives on.

The caravans have been described as "the first notable linking of the automobile with outdoor recreation."

The Henry Ford Heritage Association ends its chronicle of the Vagabonds' with the following paragraph:

"Although the Vagabonds camped no more, the publicity surrounding their expeditions acquainted millions of people with the pleasures of motor camping and undoubtedly inspired many auto owners to follow their example. The Vagabonds thus were the avant-garde of the countless vacationers, trailers in tow, who annually take to the highways, and of the huge recreational industry which serves them."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

 

 

 

 


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