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.