When Henry Ford and Thomas Edison Went Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains

Black and white landscape photo taken while camping in the Great Smoky Mountains.
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Henry Ford didn’t just revolutionize the automobile industry…he also revolutionized camping trips! A lover of nature, Ford and some of his famous friends took a series of high profile road trips between 1914 and 1924 to some of the nation’s most scenic areas. Along the way, Ford showed the world how fun it could be to pack up the car and head into the great outdoors. Visit My Smokies did a little research to bring you an account of the time Henry Ford and Thomas Edison went camping in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Vagabonds: America’s First Supergroup

A photograph of John Burroughs, the American naturalist

John Burroughs

For his camping trips, Ford put together an all-star team made up of some of America’s greatest minds. Calling themselves the “Vagabonds”, the posse consisted of:

  • Henry Ford: the founder of Ford Motor Company and the visionary who brought the Model T to the masses.
  • Thomas Edison: the brilliant inventor who developed the motion picture camera, the phonograph, and the long-lasting electric light bulb.
  • Harvey Firestone: the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, one of the earliest global manufacturers of automobile tires.
  • John Burroughs: a naturalist and nature essayist who was active in the conservation movement.

The Vagabonds’ first outing occurred in 1914, when Ford and Burroughs visited Edison for a tour of the Florida Everglades. The next year, Ford and Edison invited Harvey Firestone to join them on a vacation in California. In 1918, all four men set out for their most ambitious expedition to date: an epic camping trip from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, by way of the Great Smoky Mountains.

(See Also: 7 Basic Facts About the Smoky Mountains That Might Surprise You)

Thomas Edison sitting in a chair.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison Should Have Invented a GPS

Before the Vagabonds could go camping in the Great Smoky Mountains, they had to drive there first! With an average speed of 18 mph, and dozens of cars trailing them, the famous foursome weren’t exactly whizzing down the Autobahn. Thomas Edison was in charge of plotting out the road trip, and it sounds like he could have benefited from Google Maps. Mocking Edison’s navigational skills, Harvey Firestone wrote, “We never know where we are going, and I suspect that he does not either”.

To be fair to Edison, driving in 1918 was a lot different than it is today. Paved roads were few and far between, there were no interstate highways, and every so often, drivers would encounter handwritten road signs with dire warnings like “DRIVE SLOW – DANGEROUS AS THE DEVIL”. Armed with only a compass and a collection of atlases, Edison made due with the tools at his disposal.

On the other hand, Edison reportedly had a penchant for choosing back roads and avoiding big towns. The Vagabonds did run into some trouble when a broken fan pierced the radiator of one of the cars. Fortunately, the world’s foremost expert on automobiles was there to help! Henry Ford rolled up his sleeves and repaired the car himself, which undoubtedly enthralled the group of onlookers.

Camping, Millionaire StyleAn enormous tent in the woods.

When you’re Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, you simply don’t go camping in the Great Smoky Mountains like normal people. In fact, the Vagabonds could be considered pioneers of “glamping” – a trendy type of glamorous camping that has become popular in recent years.

For starters, each man slept in his own tent with his name etched on the outside. Apparently, Edison couldn’t bear to be without his beloved electricity for an extended period, so he brought his own mobile electric generator to power the campsite. Joining the Vagabonds on their journey was a servant staff who followed their employer in a fleet of Ford cars that sometimes numbered at 50. During one camping trip, there was a specially designated kitchen car that John Burroughs dubbed a “Waldorf-Astoria on wheels”. Meals were served to the Vagabonds by waiters in formal wear inside of a large dining tent with room for 20 guests.

Despite their ultra-luxurious accommodations, the men did enjoy some traditional outdoor activities. A font of knowledge regarding everything to do with nature, Burroughs taught his companions how to identify flowers and make bird calls. Always competitive, Ford challenged the Vagabonds to races and contests, such as tree chopping competitions. Even though Edison’s generator provided ample light, the men enjoyed a traditional campfire and wide ranging conversations about everything from poetry to classical music.

Inspiring a New Generation of Campers

Naturally, the Vagabonds’ camping expeditions attracted a lot of attention – not that Ford and Firestone were complaining. As newspapers printed headlines like “Genius to Sleep Under Stars” and “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains off on a Vacation”, the captains of industry got plenty of free publicity for their cars and tires. Ford even brought his own film crew on the camping trips to create a series of newsreels that were shown in theaters across the country. You can see one of these short silent films embedded below:

John Burroughs passed away in 1921, and after a 1924 vacation with President Coolidge in Vermont, the remaining Vagabonds decided to hang up their tents for good. The attention the famous men attracted on their adventures was getting to be too much; Firestone described it as a “traveling circus”. Nevertheless, the Vagabonds could take pride in the fact that their newsreels and newspaper headlines helped inspire an entire generation of Americans to go on road trips and enjoy nature.

Does reading about Ford, Edison, Firestone, and Burroughs make you want to go camping in the Great Smoky Mountains? Check out our complete guide to RV Parks and Campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains!

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