The Famed Summer Camping Trips of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs

A Signed Commemorative Book Published in 1916 Recalls the Rambling Road Trips Taken by Four of the Nation’s Most Famous Men More Than a Century Ago


In 1914, the automobile tycoon Henry Ford and the naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison at his Florida vacation home. The trio attempted to tour the Everglades, but the trip was cut short due to bad weather. 

Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford
Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford at Edison’s winter estate in Ft. Myers, Florida. Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

A year later, Ford, Edison, and the tire magnate Harvey Firestone took a promotional road trip through California. During these enjoyable jaunts, the “Vagabonds,” as they came to be called, devised a plan to meet annually for a summer vacation, ideally one in which they embraced nature by hiking, camping, and enjoying the great American outdoors. 

The Vagabonds

Essentially the Vagabonds included Ford, Edison, Burroughs, and Firestone. As inventors and entrepreneurs, Edison and Ford were by far the more famous members of the group, but they all contributed something special to these trips. Ford and Firestone organized the caravan of cars that would take the men from campsite to campsite. Edison planned and publicized their routes. Burroughs, author of several books and articles about the natural world, acted as a guide to the plants and birds along the way. 

Burroughs had a lot of experience at this, having gone on many similar trips with President Theodore Roosevelt, including one to Yellowstone National Park that resulted in Burroughs’ book, Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt (1907). The two remained friends for decades and wrote to each other regularly about their shared interests in nature and wildlife and journalism

Theodore Roosevelt signed letter to John Burroughs
Theodore Roosevelt signed letter to John Burroughs, 1903, for sale with The Raab Collection.

The 1916 Camping Trip

In 1916, Edison mapped out the route for the Vagabonds summer camping trip. He and Firestone embarked from New Jersey, stopped in New York’s Catskills to pick up Burroughs, and then headed into the Adirondacks and New England, where they awaited Ford (who ultimately couldn’t join them).    

From August 28 to September 9, 1916, the trio hiked and fished. Newspapers from San Francisco to Brooklyn closely followed their pursuits.

Edison newspaper headline 1916
Typical headline on the 1916 Vagabonds trip.

The reports focused on how the travelers would be getting back to nature: navigating via compass, cooking over a campfire, and refusing to shave.  

“As a matter of fact we are going to rough it,” Edison told reporters. “The camp equipment consists of four tents and utensils–including electric lights. As for fishing rods you can’t beat a bent pin and a birch bough.”

When the trip concluded, the travelers published a limited edition book to commemorate the trip.  

The introduction reads, “Greetings: To Our Friends–Mr. Edison made plans for a Vacation Camping Party, including beside himself, Mr. John Burroughs, Mr. H.S Firestone and Mr. Henry Ford (who we regret was unavoidably prevented from being with us.) As a little diary of this trip, which proved so enjoyable to all of us, we are sending this book to our friends who we think will be interested in the events of those two weeks in August and September 1916.”

1916 Vagabonds book page
A page from the Vagabonds’ 1916 commemorative book, for sale with The Raab Collection.

Signed by Edison, Burroughs, and Firestone, the book contains photographs, drawings, and poems. It is a remarkable memento, not only of this noteworthy expedition, but of the friendship between four of the twentieth century’s most important men and their shared reverence for the American landscape.  

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