Adventures of Henry Ford and the Four Vagabonds

The term "vagabond" conjures up images of rootless individuals who travel about from place to place with no permanent home. More than a century ago, however, four famous men who had well-established residences and exercised a wide influence adopted the designation "vagabond" to describe themselves. Specifically, these men called themselves the Four Vagabonds as they traveled the United States, partly to enjoy one another's company and partly to advertise their products and skills. These Four Vagabonds were John Burroughs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone.

Who Were the Four Vagabonds?

Of the men who made up the Four Vagabonds, perhaps the least well-known, at least to the general public, is John Burroughs. Burroughs was an American naturalist writer who lived during the second half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. A friend of Walt Whitman, Burroughs wrote numerous essays and other pieces that were in great demand during his lifetime. The second of the four vagabonds has a name that is synonymous with rubber tires: Harvey Firestone was the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Firestone made a deal with auto producer Henry Ford in 1905 to provide pneumatic rubber tires for all Ford automobiles. That deal, more than nearly anything else, ensured that the automobile industry would adopt rubber tires for all vehicles. Ford himself was the third of the Four Vagabonds. His name is legendary in the United States and around the world for introducing the assembly line to manufacturing. His innovations allowed the Ford Motor Company to reduce the costs of production, with the result being that automobiles became affordable to the common person. Finally, the fourth of the Four Vagabonds was Thomas Edison. Edison, of course, is perhaps the most famous inventor that America has ever produced. Perhaps his best-known invention is the incandescent light bulb, but he created many other products. In his lifetime, Edison received nearly 1,100 U.S. patents.

The Vagabonds' Travels

The idea that the four men should travel together came from discussions between Edison and Ford during a 1914 trip that the two men and their families took to the Florida Everglades. In 1915, Firestone joined Ford and Edison on an auto trip from Los Angeles to San Diego. Over the succeeding years, further trips were made throughout various parts of the country, and many trips included men besides the four mainstays. During these trips, the Vagabonds and their associates did not stay in hotels or motels; rather, they went camping, sleeping in tents and otherwise getting close to nature during their travels. Given the wealth of the men involved on these trips, it should come as no surprise that these camping accommodations were the best that could be provided in the early part of the 20th century. Each man slept in his own tent, which included mosquito netting and other conveniences. The men also brought along a dedicated dining tent and dining table. A portable generator also provided electricity for a well-lit campsite during the evenings. People from local communities would often visit the Vagabonds at each campsite where they stayed, bringing the travelers fresh fruit and other things that were harder to access during travel in those days.

Notable Trips and Meetings

Of the many trips that the Four Vagabonds took between 1914 and 1924, a highlight was the 1923 trip wherein they met President Calvin Coolidge in Massachusetts. As might be expected, that was a great opportunity for publicity, but in reality, the public was quite interested in the travels of the Four Vagabonds even when they did not meet up with presidents. As a result, the utility of the automobile was imprinted indelibly on the American psyche, and the prospect of owning a vehicle became even more alluring to people who wanted the freedom to travel throughout the nation. Certainly, men such as Ford and Firestone were not afraid to take advantage of this, and the trips of the Four Vagabonds would prove invaluable to the future growth of their businesses. In any case, the annual camping and traveling trips ended in 1924 due to the age of the men and the difficulties of managing ever larger entourages of travelers. But without a doubt, the notion of a road trip would be far different if the Vagabonds had never traveled.


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