There were three close friends who went on their annual weeklong camping trip together 100 years ago this week in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They called themselves “the Vagabonds”. They went swimming, horseback riding, shooting, slept in tents, and had a wood chopping competition. Not much out of the ordinary back in 1921, except these three friends happened to be among the world’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen – Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone. Oh, and they also invited the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding.
Norman Brauer, author of There to Breathe the Beauty, describes it best. “Imagine a scenario in which an outdoors-loving president takes a sudden weekend leave from the White House to join up with three of the most powerful industrialists in the Western world at a campsite in the mountains of Western Maryland, where they ride horses, shoot rifles, chop wood, and eat and sleep in tents beside a babbling brook.”
People who know me or regular readers of my column, will know that I am not a fan of camping, even when I was a young girl. I remember that I had to spend seven nights under canvas to achieve my ‘Queen’s Guide’ award in my early teens (the equivalent of the Gold Award for Girl Scouts in the USA). For me that was the hardest part of the challenges that lead to the recognition of this prestigious award.
I believe that working hard all my life means that I should be able to enjoy good plumbing, electricity, clean sheets on a soft mattress, good Wi-Fi and all the other comforts of being indoors in the 21st century! If I am on vacation, I would rather have room service and housekeeping – otherwise it is me providing those services! My husband and I don’t always want exactly the same thing on a vacation so we often compromise and then occasionally he goes away with the boys “roughing it” and I have a girls trip to a hotel, with a spa, nice restaurant and near the shops or beach.
So, I don’t really understand what led Ford, Edison, Firestone, and famous nature writer John Burroughs to start their “Vagabond” camping trips in about 1915. Originally these trips were true vacations in which these titans of industry could get away from the pressures of business and their growing empires. Burroughs, who died in early 1921, wrote about their adventures in A Strenuous Holiday, which was published after his death. “We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more,” he wrote, describing how the group tried to shake off the trappings of wealth and power for a few weeks each year. However, as time went on, these trips became larger, more organized, and eventually had traveling gourmet chefs and waiters in black tie. Today we would call it “glamping”, the modern term for “glamorous camping” – which sounds much better to me! There also became an increasing focus on publicity and showmanship, and these trips became a major advertising initiative in the selling of Ford cars and Firestone tires. By the mid-1920s, the “Vagabond” camping trips became so well known that the group had to stop this tradition since the crowds made them unmanageable.
But back to the trip of 100 years ago this week; the entourage was only about 100 people and a convoy of only a few dozen of vehicles. President Harding joined that year, as did their wives for the first time, plus the press, photographers, secret service agents, cooks, guides, drivers and more. Crowds gathered by roadsides to watch the convey go by and hope to catch a glimpse of this rich, famous, and powerful group. Extensive press coverage of the event captured the imagination of the entire country and even the world, which was just emerging from the dual nightmares of the Spanish Flu epidemic and the First World War. People were keen for good news stories, and the public ate this one up.
This period also marks the general beginning of the American theme of “the open road” and “getting back to nature” to unwind. Camping as a recreational activity was relatively new 100 years ago since the common perception was that only the Military and people down on their luck slept in tents. The automobile was radically changing American society about that time, and the idea of family travel and adventures on the open road were new and exciting. Ford and Firestone were, of course, key beneficiaries of that change. Jeff Guinn, author of The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, encapsulates the idea of the traveling American spirit in one sentence. “The whole idea of driving trips was grounded on the concept of going where you wanted for as far as you liked”. How unabashedly American an idea!
So why did President Harding join the group that year? Some say he wanted to pick the brains of the world’s most successful industrialists on economic policy, and others insist it was to curry favour with rich and important people. Yet others thought it was to get a break from the scandals that were plaguing his presidency. Personally, I believe the most plausible explanation is that he just wanted to go play with his friends. After all, boys will be boys.
God Bless America!
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