Fort Worth, Texas, author Jeff Guinn has written acclaimed biographies about some really bad dudes: Charles Manson, Jim Jones and Clyde Barrow. And oh yeah, the guys at the OK Corral.
To be fair, Guinn is also the author of The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which launched his career in book writing in 1994.
His 22nd book, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, takes a deep dive into the lives of a pair of men who made invaluable contributions to American life. Without Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, night baseball games would not exist, and without Ford, chances are you wouldn’t have a car to get you there. He introduced the Model T, which spearheaded America’s car revolution.
Neither man was free of faults — Ford’s raging anti-Semitism being just one example — but alone and together, this technological odd couple changed the way we live. Forever. If you, for instance, take a road trip this summer, you might want to stop and say thanks.
Their elaborate journeys made the automobile a fixture in American life. And without it, they could not have embarked on their historic summer sojourns, which commenced in 1914, on the eve of World War I, which changed America and the world forever.
Meet the vagabonds
On their first trip, they invited naturalist John Burroughs to come along as a high-profile tour guide. Edison wanted Ford and Burroughs to travel to a place he loved — Florida — but not just Florida. He wanted them to journey to the heart of the Everglades on what promised to be and what became a swamp voyage they’d never forget, with America reading about it and watching it in newsreels, as a kind of prehistoric version of Entertainment Tonight.
Neither seemed to care that, at the time, the Everglades, in Guinn’s words, was “a big scary mess.” Roads cutting through the middle of Florida permitting transport from East to West did not exist. And those that did exist were labelled “wish-to-God roads,” full of mud and rocks and things that cry out in the night.
Even more bizarre was why Ford, Edison and Burroughs insisted on bringing their wives and having them wear dresses and bonnets. Equally strange, the men wore coats and ties. Three local guides begged them not to do it. After all, they said, people die in the Everglades. There are snakes, alligators and panthers, all of which they encountered, with a punctuation of rain that never seemed to stop. And of course, they loved every minute, as did America.
The next year, Ford and Edison added another companion — tire maker Harvey Firestone — giving the four a new name: the Vagabonds. The trips continued until 1925, when Edison and Ford concluded that being “stars” had reduced a once-pleasurable pursuit from passion to pain. The suddenly famous pair had reached a point where once-solitary getaways became like a tour by the Rolling Stones, with only themselves to blame.
During their decade of joy and wonder, the Vagabonds travelled from the Everglades to the Adirondacks, from the Catskills to the Smoky Mountains. Despite journeys that lasted only a few weeks, they “sparked endless speculation about where,” Guinn says, “they might venture next.”
Men of miracles
As with many good books, this one is fun, serving as a chronicle of the trips and the eccentricity of the men who made them memorable. With a remarkable level of insight and detail, Guinn also shows us how different America was in the halcyon years before World War I.
“In America, in 1914,” he says over brunch at his favourite Indian restaurant, Tandoor, “when they’re going to make their first trip, there are very few celebrities that everybody knows. It’s mostly politicians or military guys.
“Because the media is essentially newspapers. Radio is still an eye blink away. The silent movies are just sort of taking hold. Television hasn’t been thought of. In all of America at this point, even more than politicians, and generals, the two most famous Americans are Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
“And that is because they had given us things. They had brought miracles to the lives of ordinary Americans. With Ford, it’s not just the Model T, the car you can afford. It’s the $5 workday that makes competitors raise their salaries. Salaries go up across the country. Suddenly, people have money that they didn’t have before. And Henry Ford is clearly responsible.
“Obviously, you’re going to worship the man. Edison — we all know about the incandescent bulb, electricity in your home. What people forget is that Edison also invented the phonograph, which brings music into American homes for the first time.”
That alone is one of the reasons Guinn, a former newspaperman, revels in the work of a nonfiction author. Until he began the research for The Vagabonds, he had no idea that Edison invented the phonograph.
Edison also invented the kinetoscope and the flexible film roll, compelling “people to believe that he invented the movies. He did not,” Guinn says.
“But he invented the middle steps that let movies be shown to a wider audience, from one little pinhole that only one person could look through. Transportation. Before the advent of the popular car, besides railroads, the average American never travelled more than 12 miles from home, because that’s how far a horse and wagon could go to and from in one day.
“Suddenly, you have the ability to get out. You’ve got the money to do things when you go out. You’ve got music in your home if you want it. You’ve got light, so you can read into the night. You don’t have to blow out the candle when it gets dark. And suddenly, movies are there. So, obviously, everything they do is going to be fascinating to the public — and why not?”
Going the distance
Ford for one gave birth to a moment in American history when “a few brave pioneers are beginning to think, ‘You know, we can get in cars and go long distances.’”
There is, however, a problem. “Ninety% of the roads in America” — and not just the Everglades — are “wish-to-God roads, as in you wish to God you weren’t driving over mud and sharp rocks. And here come the two most famous men in America, along with their famous friends. They go on these trips for the fun of it. They love them. And they enjoy one another’s company. Their road trips make them the very first Americans who are prominently using cars to get out and see the country.”
Although a few other Americans previously engaged in experimental, long-distance car travel, Ford and Edison, Guinn says, were the first famous people to use cars for recreation and vacation.
It is, he says, nothing short of amazing how Edison and Ford transformed America so rapidly. In 1900, there were 8,000 cars total. Ten years later — two years after the Model T — there were half a million cars and half of those were Model Ts. And those wish-to-God roads? Ford and Edison began to change America’s highway system, whose transformation was due in large part to the allure of their decade of travels.
In 1920, six years after The Vagabonds launched their road trips, there were 8 million cars in America, and at least half of those were being used as the instruments that made road trips possible.
And, of course, they didn’t do it just for fun. Both men were salesmen and zealous about profits. They had big egos. Ford hired cinematographers to document the trips, which also included high-end butlers, chefs and waiters. Yes, there were tents, but there were also refrigerated food wagons and skilled camera operators documenting their every move.
Newsreels were the rage in theatres, and they often showed Ford, Edison, Firestone and Burroughs having a grand old time. So, why not buy a car?
“Every newspaper in the country covers every day of their trips,” Guinn says. “They became in a sense the Kardashians of their generation.”
It even reached the point where Americans began to wonder at the start of each summer: Where are those guys going to go next?
But alas, the novelty lasted only a decade. By 1924, radio had widened the celebrity net to include athletes — bas eball players in particular. Ty Cobb. Babe Ruth. Silent movie stars began to shine as celebrities, as did the notion of road trips: In 1924, Rand McNally came out with the first national road map, throwing gasoline on the fire of the average American’s dream to get behind the wheel and take a trip.
President Calvin Coolidge did his part, convening a study to explore an expansion of national parks. As Guinn says, by 1925, it was “no longer unique that anybody, even famous people, were taking a road trip. Soon, the road trips that Americans care about are their own, not somebody else’s, not Edison’s or Ford’s.”
Sure, they threw the pass, but millions of Americans took the ball and ran with it, leaving behind the pair who’d launched the trend, who made the road trip a “thing” in American life.
As the author says, “Like anybody at the beginning of a huge cultural wave, at a certain point, the wave moves on.”
And so it was with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. — The Dallas Morning News/TNS
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