TBT: How Henry Ford and His Famous Friends Pioneered Glamping

May 23, 2024

Regular readers of this feature will remember that last week we mentioned a 15-person table used by company founder Henry Ford on his famous camping excursions as a member of “The Vagabonds.” The name was applied to a group of travelers that included Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, tire maker Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs. President Warren Harding even gained membership in the group’s later years. Their cozy summer venturing as possibly the most recognizable foursome of Americans came to an end 100 years ago this summer. 

The idea for the Nature Club, as it was known early on, started in 1915 with Thomas Edison, who acted as unofficial group leader. Ford then recruited Burroughs, whom he had won over with the gift of a Model T two years earlier after Burroughs expressed his dismay over the perceived encroachment of automobiles on pristine nature

In much the same way they approached their individual pursuits, the men thought of camping differently, with the comforts of home not left behind. Long before “glamping” came into existence, the amenities for the Vagabonds’ outings included a customized kitchen camping car with a gasoline cooking stove and built-in icebox. Also, a converted truck was equipped with compartments for tents, cots, chairs, electric lights, and a large folding table. 

The destinations of these jaunts were primarily locales on the East Coast of the U.S. – including a stop at President Calvin Coolidge’s Vermont home – but also included northern Michigan and the Everglades in Florida. The adventures were said to have brought out the boy-like nature of Henry Ford, who frequently sought to run races and climb trees, though his adult side reemerged as he helped to make an array of mechanical repairs for the troop and for others.

‘A traveling circus’

The Vagabonds’ entourage for their journeys, which spanned from 1915 until 1924, included household staff members and company photographers. By 1921, the traveling party had grown to include the men’s wives. The caravan totaled 50 vehicles at one point, including several passenger cars and other vehicles. Given the lengthy motorcade and the fact that Henry Ford and Co. were some of the most well-known people of that era, it’s no surprise their trips were short-lived due to the public fanfare they generated. 

The group went nearly unnoticed, however, in their early ventures – even by a farmer who used his Model T to rescue the Vagabonds’ Lincoln from being stuck in the mud – until a news reporter happened upon the group while it was stationed in a remote area of the Adirondacks. From then on, “We became a kind of traveling circus and it became tiresome to be utterly without privacy,” Firestone was quoted as saying.

The final voyage

For the group’s final expeditions in 1924, Ford first led a spring tour of his company’s properties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula via train. He later hosted the group at his Wayside Inn, a Massachusetts tavern built in 1686 and frequented by travelers along the Old Boston Post Road, which he had purchased a year earlier. The troupe traveled through New England to meet with President Calvin Coolidge in Vermont, but the attention that followed their every move became too much and the surviving camping mates – Burroughs had died in 1921 – disbanded. 

As summer approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on the Vagabonds and their travels. Ford’s products have long exhibited their spirit for outdoor adventure. Tell us about some of the places you’ve taken your Ford-built vehicles camping or where you plan to go this summer in the comments!

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