The fascinating story of two American giants—Henry Ford and Thomas Edison—whose annual summer sojourns introduced the road trip to our culture and made the automobile an essential part of modern life, even as their own relationship altered dramatically.
In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves the Vagabonds. They would continue their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on.
Although the Vagabonds traveled with an entourage of chefs, butlers, and others, this elite fraternity also had a serious purpose: to examine the conditions of America’s roadways and improve the practicality of automobile travel. Cars were unreliable and the roads were even worse. But newspaper coverage of these trips was extensive, and as cars and roads improved, the summer trip by automobile soon became a desired element of American life.
In The Vagabonds Jeff Guinn shares the story of this pivotal moment in American history. But he also examines the important relationship between the older Edison and the younger Ford, who once worked for the famous inventor. The road trips made the automobile ubiquitous and magnified Ford’s reputation, even as Edison’s diminished. The automobile had come of age and it would transform the American landscape, the American economy, and the American way of life.
Guinn brings to life this seminal moment when a new industry created a watershed cultural shift and a famous businessman became a prominent political figure. The Vagabonds is a wonderful story of two American giants and the transformation of the country.
The Vagabonds Prologue Paris, Michigan Mid-August 1923
Bad weather plagued much of Michigan during the late summer of 1923. Unseasonably cool temperatures combined with near-constant rain, trapping residents indoors and tamping down what had been, for the last fifteen years or so, an ever-increasing influx of tourists eager to enjoy the state’s bracing mix of sprawling woodlands, arching hills, and sparkling lakes.
This was especially true in the tiny, unincorporated township of Paris, named in the 1850s for early settler John Parish. Somewhere along the line the “h” was dropped. If most of Michigan eerily resembled a palm-down left hand, Paris was located at approximately the lowest joint of the ring finger. Grand Rapids, the nearest city of any consequence, was sixty-five miles to the south, several hours’ hard driving given the poor quality of the roads wending their way through that part of the state. Paris, like most of its neighboring villages in Mecosta County, was a stop for the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad to take on water and load timber and other goods after its tracks were laid across the state in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Paris residents, rarely numbering above the mid-hundreds, were mostly farmers. Others worked at the state fish hatchery in town—the wide Muskegon River flowed nearby. The hatchery was the town’s crown jewel. When the train left town, it always carried containers of brown trout “fingerlings” to stock lakes and rivers all over the region. Many of the humble houses in town were still fairly new. A fire in 1879 had decimated much of the early settlement, and cash-strapped locals took almost a generation to completely rebuild.
Early in Paris’s modest existence, outsiders usually arrived as passengers on a Sunday-only “picnic train” from Grand Rapids that made one of its stops near the hatchery. These visitors frequently purchased drinks, snacks, and notions at Montague’s store. The Montagues were among the area’s first settlers. In 1923, Charlie Montague ran the shop. To attract a new generation of customers, he’d installed gas pumps out front. In only two decades, the number of automobiles in America had swelled from approximately eight thousand to about ten million. Highway 131, a bumpy dirt/gravel hybrid that frequently tore tires, chipped paint, and cracked windshields, ran through the middle of town. In Michigan as everywhere else in the country, Americans increasingly used cars for weekend or extended holiday travel as well as day-to-day work- or errand-related driving. “Gypsying” was an early, popular term for such outings. Participants were known as “vacationists,” or, if extended trips involved pitching tents at night, “autocampers.” Many drove through Paris on their way to somewhere more interesting, often Traverse City further to the northwest, which offered ferry services to whisk passengers and their cars to the frequently spectacular climes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula across Lake Michigan.
The first full-fledged gas stations had begun springing up around the country, but most of these were located in cities or else along the nation’s more improved major highways. Backcountry drivers generally depended on mom-and-pop grocery pumps like those at Montague’s for fuel replenishment. As out-of-town traffic through town increased, so did Charlie Montague’s income from sales of gasoline and motor oil. Some Paris residents owned cars, too. Like their fellow field-tillers across the land, Mecosta County farmers initially opposed the car gypsiers, who frequently camped overnight on their land without permission and left behind mounds of trash. But the farmers eventually realized the time-saving benefit of hauling crops to market by car rather than horse-drawn wagon and joined in automobile ownership themselves. There were still a lot of horses and wagons in Paris. At about 25 cents a gallon, Charlie rarely sold more than $100 worth of gas in a busy week. Thanks to the inclement weather so far in August that restricted driving for town residents and gypsiers alike, he’d lately been hard-pressed to sell that much.
This made what happened in mid-month all the more surprising. On a drizzly afternoon, Paris townsfolk were out and about, puttering in gardens, visiting on stoops with neighbors, or shopping at Montague’s, when they heard the purr of powerful engines. Then out of the mist on Highway 131 there appeared from the southeast a fleet of very grand automobiles, six in all, Lincolns and Cadillacs and two other vehicles that looked like nothing anyone in Paris had seen or even imagined before, hulking squarish metal wagons clearly built for hauling bulky loads.
The impressive caravan glided to a stop outside Montague’s. The driver’s side doors of the passenger vehicles opened, and from them emerged strapping men outfitted in matching khaki uniforms that resembled military garb. A small crowd gathered as these uniquely dressed fellows took turns filling their cars with gasoline. The onlookers, too intimidated to ask outright, whispered among themselves: Who are these people? After a few moments, their collective gaze switched to the windows of the passenger cars, staring at the men and women who still sat inside the automobiles, keeping out of the drizzle. Then a few locals felt sufficiently emboldened to move forward, and someone blurted loudly, “That guy in the back seat looks like Henry Ford!”
For any number of reasons—his outspoken pacifism prior to the recent world war, speculation about his prospects for the U.S. presidency in the upcoming 1924 election, constant print and photographic coverage that made his name and hawklike visage familiar, his widely perceived championing of the working class with high wages and shortened workdays, and, above all, for his modestly priced Model T that, for the first time, made car ownership possible even for people of limited means—Henry Ford had become perhaps the most famous man in America. He was certainly the most famous ever to show up unexpectedly in Paris, Michigan, and everyone in the crowd pushed forward to see him for themselves. Ford obligingly got out of his car. He offered no wave of greeting or any other theatrical gesture—he was deservedly renowned as a singularly undemonstrative man who in particular eschewed speeches. But with that exception Ford generally accepted the responsibilities of his celebrity—he’d worked diligently to cultivate it, realizing early on that his personal fame heightened demand for Model Ts—and so Ford stood in the dampness, nodding and smiling pleasantly, letting the crowd have a good look. The gawkers were only momentarily satiated. Then their excitement escalated, for if this was Henry Ford with an accompanying fleet of luxury cars, then it surely must mean . . .
Most summers for approximately the last decade, Henry Ford set out on auto trips that often extended two weeks or more, visiting remote towns and small communities, camping sometimes in parks and more frequently on private land, always asking permission first from owners and if required compensating them generously. On every trip, Ford was accompanied by friends—sometimes other business magnates or else government officials, high-ranking Ford staff members, once the now recently deceased president Warren G. Harding. His road companions always included two stalwart Ford pals, tire tycoon Harvey Firestone and much beloved inventor Thomas Edison, the only living American whose fame rivaled Ford’s own. After a few such trips, the trio, together with a fourth friend, the late naturalist John Burroughs, fancifully dubbed themselves “the Vagabonds,” and each year the announcement of their latest summer excursion sparked endless speculation about where they might venture next. A general region was always cited in advance, but not a specific route. They might pop up anywhere—speculation was rampant. In 1923, it was known that the Vagabonds would attend Harding’s funeral in Ohio, then motor on into the Upper Midwest, possibly through Wisconsin and undoubtedly parts of Michigan. Town newspapers throughout the region were full of wishful speculation—wouldn’t it be wonderful if they stopped here? Paris residents, who mostly read either the Battle Creek Enquirer or the more local Big Rapids Pioneer, would have held little hope that the celebrity troupe would motor their way. One of the Vagabonds’ avowed goals on this summer’s trip was to visit Ford lumber interests in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, most easily reached from Ohio by driving due north through eastern Wisconsin. Yet here was Henry Ford, rain dripping off the brim of his hat, and if Ford was present that must mean somewhere in one of those passenger cars sat Thomas Edison, and there he was, the great head topped by messily flopping silver hair making him easy to recognize as well. But Edison didn’t get out; he was in the early stages of a nasty cold and the weather was too severe. Harvey Firestone, his last name far better known than his genial, generic face, was identified inside several of the cars, and always in error. Firestone and his family, traveling in yet another fine car, were many miles away because their driver had gotten lost. This happened frequently on the Vagabonds’ summer trips. One car or another would take a wrong turn on a poorly marked road, and someone on the trip’s support staff would eventually be tasked with tracking down the missing vehicle and guiding it back on route.
Meanwhile, here were Ford and Edison and (supposedly) Firestone in Paris, apparently making a brief stop to refuel, but then Henry Ford had a question for the crowd: Did anyone know the way to Jep Bisbee’s house? They all did—everybody in Paris knew where everybody else lived—and Ford’s inquiry further ratcheted up their sense of speculative wonder, for eighty-one-year-old Jep was the closest thing tiny Paris had to a hometown celebrity. For all of his lengthy adult life, Jep variously earned his daily bread as a store clerk, drugstore and grocery store manager, house painter, and farmer. In the most current edition of The Farm Journal Illustrated Directory of Mecosta County, an ad-saturated directory of who lived where locally, Jep was identified as a shoemaker. But his real talent, and true professional love, was playing his handmade fiddles at area dances and festivals. Jep had a family to support, so he couldn’t fully embrace the itinerant, constantly hand-to-mouth career of a country musician, but Sarah Bisbee, his wife of forty-four years, and their now grown kids were good musicians, too, and quite often the entire Bisbee family performed onstage, fiddle and piano and second fiddle and clarinet and bass fiddle and sometimes even a bass drum. Set lists always featured old-fashioned favorites like “Turkey in the Straw” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” the kind of tunes that set toes a-tapping and lent themselves perfectly to square dancing. All of which was fine for hardscrabble folks in Mecosta County, and in other neighboring parts of their sparsely populated region. By local standards, Jep’s music career was a considerable success. But how could an important big-city man like Henry Ford have even heard of old Jep Bisbee?
In front of Montague’s, Ford offered no explanation. He simply asked directions to the Bisbee home and waited through the beat or two it took for the crowd to digest the question and respond. A parade of volunteers stepped up to lead the auto caravan a few hundred yards to Jep’s. The cars rolled slowly along and stopped in front of a nondescript residence with a small barn out back. As town residents continued staring, Ford got out of his car again, marched to the front door, and knocked. A second man came with him. When Mrs. Sarah Bisbee emerged, she was naturally taken aback by the sight of Henry Ford on the stoop, with a fleet of cars and apparently half the town right behind him. Ford politely introduced himself and the second man, Edward Kingsford, who managed one of Ford’s lumber businesses in the Upper Peninsula. Ford asked if Mr. Bisbee was home. Later, as witnesses added embellishments, Mrs. Bisbee was described as calmly ushering her famous visitor and his companion right in, acting for all the world as though celebrities appeared on her doorstep all the time, but the reality was that she needed to gather herself before mumbling that Jep was out in the barn. Instinctive good manners compelled her to invite them in while her husband was fetched—a number of townsfolk, eavesdropping for all their ears were worth, heard Ford’s question and gleefully hustled to the barn on his behalf—but shock prevented Mrs. Bisbee from fully embracing her sudden role as hostess to the great and asking Ford to bring along all the other people who remained in the cars outside.
Mrs. Bisbee seated Ford and Kingsford in her modest parlor. When Jep hustled in, Ford, never one for unnecessary chitchat, immediately asked him to get his fiddle and play. As a lifelong musician for hire, Jep was accustomed to performing on demand. This circumstance was certainly different—Henry Ford appearing out of nowhere in his home—but the request itself was normal enough. Jep got his fiddle and Kingsford explained why they’d come. Some years earlier, Kingsford heard Jep play at a dance. It was well-known among Ford associates that their employer loathed modern music—he found jazz particularly detestable—but thoroughly enjoyed traditional tunes and the square dances, waltzes, and polkas associated with them. When Kingsford learned that Ford was coming up through southwest Michigan on this summer’s trip, he suggested a stop in Paris so that the boss could savor some of Jep’s fiddling in person. And now, here they were.
Jep enjoyed the story and started to play, with his wife accompanying him on piano. No account exists of the songs they played, but whatever they were, Ford was enchanted. He toe-tapped right along, and when the Bisbees paused for a moment between numbers Ford sent Kingsford to summon the rest of the party. In came Thomas Edison, wide-bellied and clad as usual in rumpled clothes that looked like they’d been slept in, which they probably had—on Vagabonds trips, Edison was notorious for curling up for naps underneath trees, beside babbling brooks, or across car seats. Behind him were two ladies, Clara Ford and Mina Edison. As grande dames fully aware of their exalted social status, they were appropriately dressed to appear in public, in long flowing dresses that covered them from neck to instep with armorlike corsets beneath—nothing about an upper-class woman must appear to jiggle—and fashionable bonnets that remained pinned to their finely coiffed hair even indoors.
This was a moment when true country hospitality might have required the offering of refreshments, and how was Mrs. Bisbee to know what, in her limited larder, would be deemed acceptable by such American royalty? But Henry Ford rescued her from such a delicate decision. He’d come to hear music, not snack, and asked politely but firmly for the Bisbees to play some more. They did, and two unexpected things happened. First, Edison moved his chair directly beside where Jep stood, and bent so that his ear was almost directly over the fiddle’s ringing strings. It was widely known that Thomas Edison was exceptionally hard of hearing, and here was proof. He clearly didn’t want to miss a single note or nuance. Even more astonishingly, Henry and Clara Ford stood and began dancing together, right there in the Bisbee parlor, just like a country couple at a Mecosta County barn dance. The Fords had obviously danced to folk tunes before. They moved with grace and precision, smiling as they swayed, and when the Bisbees’ fingers ached so much that they had to stop playing, Ford was positively garrulous. Afterward, when neighbors badgered Jep for details, he said Ford kept repeating how hard it was to hear such fine music nowadays. The Bisbees played the right music, the great man said, real American music and not that awful-sounding jazz. In between paying compliments, Ford made an offer: He wanted to buy Jep’s fiddle. It turned out that Ford had a whole collection of them, Stradivariuses and other fine violins, and he believed Jep’s modest homemade instrument would fit right in. (Ford himself enjoyed sawing away on a Stradivarius, but the resulting sounds were more correctly identified as noise rather than music.) Jep had no attachment to this particular fiddle—he made, played, and sold them all the time. Likely he would just have given the thing to his very distinguished guest, but never got the chance. Instead of offering a modest amount as a preliminary step in negotiation, Ford slapped $100 down on a table as payment and of course Jep took it, that sum surely being five or even ten times more than he’d previously made on a handmade fiddle.
All that—the Vagabonds coming to town, them asking for Jep Bisbee, the Fords dancing in the Bisbee front room, Ford forking over a century note for Jep’s fiddle, miracles beyond proper description—and then Thomas Edison topped them. He’d let Ford do the talking, but now he flashed that wide wonderful smile familiar from all the newspaper photos and, in a voice made croaky by his cold, instructed Jep to prepare for travel. Once his summer trip was done and he was back home in New Jersey, Edison explained, he wanted Jep and the whole Bisbee family to board a train at the Paris depot and head there, too. Once arrived, Jep would make recordings right in Edison’s private studio, just like famous opera singers and symphony orchestras sometimes did. Edison, who’d invented the phonograph way back in the 1870s, also had a company that sold recordings everywhere. They’d make Jep’s music available to the entire nation. And while Jep was out east, Edison promised to introduce him to the New York City press, who’d write all kinds of stories about him. Edison pointed out that other musicians he’d recorded became so popular that they headlined extended tours around the country. His offer gave Jep not only the chance to make a national name for himself, but maybe a lot of money, too. Jep hardly knew what to say. Just hours earlier, such things would have been as far beyond belief as the elderly fiddler sprouting wings to fly.
It was at this point that Ford had a final surprise. He told Jep that he was so pleased with his music, he was going to give him a new Model T with all the extras right off the Ford assembly line downstate. It’d be delivered soon, right here in Paris, so Jep could drive himself to jobs at dances and festivals in style. And then, while Jep and Sarah stood there stunned, the Fords and Edisons and Kingsford bid them rather abrupt goodbyes, got in their cars, and the whole caravan whooshed off north in the rain. One moment Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were in the parlor, making all kinds of dazzling promises, and the next they were out of sight.
Afterward, the Vagabonds’ visit naturally dominated talk in Paris. Those who couldn’t believe their own eyes were reassured in print that they hadn’t been mistaken. Reporters must have been among the passengers in the fancy cars, because over the next few days articles about the visit to Jep and the pledges made to him appeared in newspapers as far away as California and New York. That was certainly fine, but then came subsequent stories about the Vagabonds’ further summer adventures, and none of these mentioned Jep, reporting instead how Ford put out some small wildfire in a park upstate and Edison’s cold got worse—at least one newspaper declared that he might die, which he didn’t—and how Mrs. Ford got into it with some young lady sunbathers by a lake, criticizing their too-revealing short-shorts and refusing to give them her autograph. Then came stories announcing the trip was over, that Ford was back home in downstate Dearborn and Edison in New Jersey.
The Bisbees and everyone else in Paris were left to wonder—did Ford and Edison really mean what they’d said? In the weeks after they passed through town, no further word was received from them, let alone train tickets to New Jersey or a spanking new Model T. Sure, Jep had his $100 for a fiddle, and Charlie Montague couldn’t stop crowing about making $100 on gasoline sales in a single hour, what with all the gallons those drivers pumped into the Vagabonds’ fancy cars. These things alone would have been historic for the small town, events endlessly described to future generations. But the larger question remained. It was likely that these two great men made all kinds of promises as they drove about the country, perhaps too many to remember every one when they got back home and resumed making cars and inventing things. It seemed possible—and, as more days passed, even probable—that amid the ongoing great doings of their famous lives, Ford and Edison simply forgot Jep Bisbee.
The rest of August and then all of September passed, and by early October there was still no word, no summons to New Jersey or the delivery of a car. People in Paris settled in for the approaching winter. They sympathized with poor Jep, whose hopes had been raised so high. At least he remained spry enough to continue playing for a few dollars here and there at local gatherings. His reputation benefited from the Vagabonds’ visit—it wasn’t every country fiddler who could claim he’d played as Henry and Clara Ford danced, impressed Thomas Edison to boot, and had copies of newspaper articles to prove it.
But the great men had encouraged him to expect so much more. As the weather turned colder, as the first snow fell on Paris, Jep Bisbee could only continue hoping that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were not only great men, but truthful ones, too.
Jeff Guinn is an award-winning former investigative journalist and the bestselling author of numerous books, including Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde; The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the West;Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson; and The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
"A fascinating slice of rarely considered American history."
“The Vagabonds is Jeff Guinn at his incisive and entertaining best. Meticulously researched and gracefully written, The Vagabonds shows us the architects of the 20th century in a new and fascinating light. A great read.”
– Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart and Darkness the Color of Snow
"Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, road-tripping buddies. . . . An entertaining story that mixes sharp portraits of their vivid personalities with details of their travels and a portrait of American society during those years."
– Kirkus Reviews
"A fascinating snapshot of some of the less-famous years of American history. . . .[And] a portrait of America's burgeoning love affair with the automobile."
– Camila Domonoske, NPR.org
“Jeff Guinn is a gifted writer, and his smooth prose transports the reader to the early 1900s, where we travel along with two of America's most celebrated icons. Guinn's unflinching portraits of Ford and Edison reveal that while these men accomplished great things, they were also deeply flawed individuals. One of the book's biggest surprises is how many of the currents running through it still roil our politics and culture today.”
– Eric Jay Dolin, Author of Black Flags, Blue Waters
"An arresting account of America's auto-camping movement and its incipient motivators."