Perhaps the earliest take on a “reality show” traces back to four famous Americans, all varying in age, personality, and perspective, who gathered each summer from 1915-1924 for a camping trip. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs, referred to themselves as the “Four Vagabonds” and their annual gatherings received public attention and curiosity seekers who wanted to observe and hopefully meet these celebrities of the 20th Century. The genesis of these excursions began in 1914 when Ford and Burroughs made a visit to Edison in Florida, where they ended up touring the Everglades. Over time, various combinations of the foursome and other guests would visit notable wilderness areas of the United States, including the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Green Mountains, as well as the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. These trips were a big production, involving numerous passenger cars and campers (thanks to Ford) to carry not only the vagabonds, but the equipment, household comforts, and servant staff. Each excursion would usually include a photographer who would document the trip. This unusual combination of the automotive magnate, the inventor, the industrialist, and the naturalist, all passionate and influential in American culture, made for interesting interactions and discussions. The group would engage in tree-chopping contests, hunting, racing, talking and entertaining onlookers, and some “off-road” motoring. Each would have an assigned role to play on the excursion, with Edison tending to the electricity and battery needs, Firestone ensuring the cars were well equipped and stocked with food, Ford scoping out possible camp sites, and the elder Burroughs playing the role of wildlife resource, bird caller, and hiking instructor.
Some of John Burroughs observations:
We were headed for the Great Smoky Mountains
in North Carolina. I confess that mountains and men
who do not smoke suit me better. Still I can stand
both, and started out with the hope that the great
Appalachian Range held something new and interesting
for me. Yet I knew it was a risky thing for an
octogenarian to go a-gypsying. Old blood has lost
some of its red corpuscles and does not warm up
easily over the things that moved one so deeply when
he was younger. More than that, —What did I need
of an outing? All the latter half of my life has been an
outing, and an “inning” now seems more in order.
It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously
equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.
…at three or four in the morning I got up, replenished
the fire, and in a camp chair beside it indulged in the
“long, long thoughts” which belong to age much
more than to youth. Youth was soundly and audibly
sleeping in the tents with no thoughts at all.
We were fortunate in many ways—perfect weather,
good company, good health, few delays, a world of
wonderful scenery, and only enough bad roads to enhance
our appreciation of the good ones. No serious
accidents, and only one hairbreadth escape — that was
when a car full of young people, and going at high
speed, came around a sharp turn on our side of the
road. Reckless driving like that makes one’s ire rise,
and causes him to look back after the miscreants
with set teeth and clenched fists.
I was the only literary man in the party, and
was a kind of referee in such matters. But
automobile traveling shakes my wits down like
a bag of corn, and it is an effort for me to get up
an interest in literary subjects. But when Edison said
he thought the two greatest works of poetry and
fiction in his time were “Evangeline” and “Les
Miserables,” I could not agree with him. A sweet
and tender poem is “Evangeline,” certainly, but with
no elements of greatness or of creative power, and
while Hugo’s great novel certainly has power, it is
yet, from an artistic point of view, a monstrosity.
The behavior of Mr. Edison on such a trip is in
marked contrast to that of Mr. Ford. Partly owing to
his much greater age, but mainly, no doubt, to his
more meditative and introspective cast of mind, he is
far less active. When we paused for mid-day lunch,
or to make camp at the end of the day, Mr. Edison
would sit in his car reading, or curl up, boy fashion,
under a tree and take a nap, while Mr. Ford would inspect
the stream, or busy himself in getting wood for the fire.
Mr. Ford is a runner and a high kicker, and frequently
challenges some member of the party to race with him.
He is also a persistent walker, and from every camp, both
morning and evening, he sallied forth for a brisk half-hour walk…
Mr. Firestone belongs to an entirely different type —
the clean, clear-headed, conscientious business type, always
on his job, always ready for whatever comes, always at
the service of those around him, a man devoted to his
family and his friends, sound in his ideas, and generous
of the wealth that has come to him as a manufacturer.
John Burroughs passed away in 1921, but the annual camping trip continued. In fact, it would grow in attention and participation with each year, including the involvement of two U.S. Presidents — Harding and Coolidge. However, by 1924, the distractions of the public eye became too much for the vagabonds and the group ended its annual camping pilgrimage.
This publication, compiled by John Burroughs, but not issued until after his death in 1921, provides an account of the camping trip through the Appalachians made by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Harvey Firestone, Jr. and John Burroughs in August 1918. With mounted photographs on thick stock paper, the publication is presented as a informal family vacation album.
The PBS series The American Experience has some original film footage of the Vagabonds at a meal with their extravagant Lazy Susan set-up.
Vagabonds ready to embark
Rise and shine Mr. Edison
Burroughs and Edison engage in some plant chat
Time for a mid-day snooze
Ford and Firestone in a shearing throwdown contest
- Burroughs, John. Our vacation days of 1918. [S.l. : s.n., 1921?].
- Persistent Link:
- Widener Library
- Harvard University