HARVEY FIRESTONE, JR.,
AND JOHN BURROUGHS
COME TO MARTINSVILLE VIRGINIA
On August 29, 1918, with the shadow of World War One looming over the entire world, a group of famous men and their entourage visited Martinsville, Virginia, as part of a thirteen day “circle tour” into the “Land of Dixie.” The group included Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, Thomas Edison, the world-famous inventor, Harvey Firestone, Jr. the man who put tires on the cars and naturalist John Burroughs.
The group made a two-week summer trip calling themselves the “Vagabonds” from 1915 until 1924. In 1919, the trip included fifty vehicles including a kitchen camping car with a gas stove and ice box built into the vehicle. Later trips included President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. The group were the subject of news reels that promoted Ford cars and Firestone tires, filmed by a cameraman from Ford Motor Company.
Ford called Edison his “boyhood idol” and the two had summer homes Florida together. Edison navigated with his compass sitting in the “perch,” the front seat of the first car. Edison often recited chemical formulas or told tall tales to the group. The group slept in personal tents with power for lights supplied by Edison generators.
The group left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 18 on a nearly two-week excursion. They traveled through West Virginia to Hot Springs, White Sulphur Springs, Princeton, Bluefield, and then into Virginia visiting Lebanon, Abington, and Bristol, before visiting the Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville, North Carolina, where they stayed at the Grove Park Inn. The group had dinner at the Rotary Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before making their way back into Virginia and a visit to Martinsville on August 29, 1918.
Naturalist John Burroughs kept records and photographs of their trip. “A plunge into the South for a Northern Man is in many ways a plunge into the Past. As soon as you get into Virginia, there is a change.” Burroughs was in his seventies during the excursions. He taught the group bird calls and how to identify birds. Firestone said, “We never knew where we are going.”
The entourage included six cars: two Packards, two Model Ts, and two Ford trucks. They had seven drivers/helpers and plant pathologists, Professor R. J. DeLoach. This was 1918 when the vehicles could move along about 18 miles an hour on roads that were mostly dirt or a “Macadon” surface. Counties, not states, took care of the roads. Many roads were taken care of by the people, who lived along the roads, so it was hit or miss when it came to quality of the road ways this group encountered. Many times, there were toll gates with costs such as two cents for cars and five cents for trucks.
Henry Ford was age 55 in 1918 and wanted to “reconnect with nature” on this journeys. Ford chopped wood and loved to hike and even rode wheat harvesters. Once when a radiator broke, Ford fixed it himself.
Sometimes wives joined the group. Firestone once brought a butler. At night around the campfire, the “Vagabonds” ate ribeye steaks and talked about everything from Mozart to Shakespeare.
Once when a vehicle broke down, a local man inquired of the group and was told, “I am Thomas Edison. I am Henry Ford.” The local looked at Burroughs, who had a long white beard and skeptically asked, “Are you Santa Claus?”
From Martinsville, the “Vagabonds” went on to Roanoke and the Natural Bridge before overnighting at the Castle Inn in Lexington, Virginia. One of their stops included the Old Hambrick Mill, which is no longer standing in Franklin County, Virginia, along the Blackwater River near Gogginsville, Virginia.
On September 1, 1918, the group went on to Staunton, Virginia. The group completed their trip “road weary” in Hagerstown, Maryland.
There were apparently other visits by individual members of the group such as Thomas Edison in May 1906 when he stopped in the area on his way to Lincolnton, North Carolina, to investigate supplies of cobalt to use in a storage battery. He was called “the greatest man in the country” by a local man. Edison replied to the compliment asking, “What about Teddy?” referring to then President Theodore Roosevelt. Another visit by Edison, Firestone, and Ford reportedly in 1910 on their way to Fort Meyers, Florida, where they had homes.
You can learn more at this link of John Burroughs Our vacation days of 1918.