August 2014

The Vagabonds

Ford, Firestone, Edison and Burroughs and the birth of Adirondack car-camping

Camping along the Ausable River, September 8, 1916. Photograph by Richard Walker from In Nature’s Laboratory, courtesy of the Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake

War raged in Europe as America clung to the sidelines. Tenor Enrico Caruso recorded “O Sole Mio,” a swooping ballad punctuated by clacking castanets. Charlie Chaplin starred in One A.M., a hilarious silent film that had the young actor crawling in a window, stepping in a fishbowl, climbing the stairs like a drunken mountaineer and finally collapsing in the shower. There were millions of cars on American roads, millions more streaming off the assembly lines of Detroit.

In the Adirondacks the frontier aura was fading. Victrolas played in parlors illuminated by incandescent bulbs. Dirt, gravel and some macadam roads linked communities once connected by stagecoach or steamboat, though a logical route-numbering system lay a decade in the future. Even the smallest towns held dry-goods stores, barbers, milliners, printers, groceries and, where liveries had been only a few years before, garages boasting skilled mechanics to fix the Tin Lizzies that were rapidly replacing horse and wagon. On St. Regis Lake, Paul Smith’s Hotel—formerly the pinnacle of backwoods elegance—languished, its charismatic founder gone. And the once-opulent Prospect House was an abandoned hulk haunting the shore of Blue Mountain Lake.

The traveling public’s profile was changing: No longer was a summer vacation a months-long wilderness affair reserved for the leisured class alone. Office and factory workers could—and emphatically did—get out of town for a week of woodsy play. With the altered demographic came very different tastes. Posh resorts, where ladies and gentlemen dressed for seven-course dinners and paid guides to take them into the great outdoors, went the way of the frock coat and whalebone corset. Along highways, perched beside ponds or nestled by a lake, individual cottages held great appeal, and the notion of sleeping on a folding cot in a canvas tent was not just romantic, it proved the American ideal of independence.

Into this landscape motored a trio of the most famous men in the country: Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs. Dubbing themselves “the Vagabonds,” they set their sights on flat clearings for camping, sparkling streams for bathing and starry nights for discussing world affairs. It’s as if software pioneer Bill Gates, Nike founder Phil Knight and environmentalist Bill McKibben decided to pile into the station wagon for a backcountry outing.

The 1916 Adirondack tour grew from earlier road trips organized by Henry Ford for his pals. In 1914 they visited Edison in Florida; subsequent destinations included Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Smokies, Maryland, Massachusetts and places in between. (Ford, who had spearheaded a so-called peace ship to Europe in 1915 to protest the war, may have skipped the Adirondack adventure because of the negative publicity surrounding that voyage—the bickering among high-profile pacifists earned international ridicule. Even if he were physically absent, Ford’s custom camping cars and managerial talents made him part of the entourage.)

Burroughs, 79, was no stranger to these parts. His first Adirondack forays began in the 1860s, continuing for six decades. He deemed Ampersand “the gem of Adirondack lakes,” and he had stayed at St. Huberts, Speculator and elsewhere in the central Adirondacks. The best-selling nature writer was no stranger to traveling with illustrious companions either: he and President Teddy Roosevelt went to Yellowstone together in 1903.

Edison had direct contact with the region too, as designer of the electrical system at the Prospect House. In 1892 his engineers installed a generator, then wired 300 guest rooms, making it the first hotel in the country with lightbulbs.

The caravan launched on August 29 from Edison’s place in Orange, New Jersey. Covering 50 to 100 miles a day, they gathered Burroughs from his Catskill home and headed for Albany, Saratoga Springs and Corinth. Firestone served as tour manager and Edison navigator, with the tire mogul grumbling that the inventor never chose a smooth road if a crude one were available. On September 1 they reached Indian Lake via Lake George, passing up the Cedar River Hotel in favor of tenting at Frank Babcock’s cabins just down the road. A letter to The Conservationist published in 1970 by Berton Loucks Jr. indicated that his mother, a guest at the hotel, had several fireside chats with Burroughs. Looking over all the tents; platforms; folding beds with mattresses, sheets, pillowcases; and even electric lights, Burroughs said, “This is no way to camp. All I need is a frying pan and a blanket.”

The next day, according to the Vagabonds’ scrapbook of the adventure, In Nature’s Laboratory, they inspected the sorry state of the Prospect House. In Elizabethtown the county sheriff was especially welcoming, conscripting prisoners to chop firewood for the esteemed visitors. After overnighting in his field, they continued west, camping near Au Sable Forks. Burroughs favored sleeping by running water, smitten by “the plausible, saucyful Ausable River,” as he described it in the journal. The motorcade went farther west to Paul Smiths, then north, eventually to the ferry at Chazy Landing and Vermont and New Hampshire.

For Burroughs this was heaven, a “very sane and hygienic way of spending a brief vacation, especially if you keep clear of houses and hotels.” His letter to Edison and Firestone tipped into the scrapbook reads, “That was a fine trip you gave us. John Muir would have called it glorious. … We went out on a lark and our spirits soared and sang like larks most of the time. My health has been so precarious during the summer that I feared I could not stand more than two or three days of the journey, but as it turned the farther I went the farther I wanted to go. I drank in health and strength every hour.” He attributed the salubrious effects to laughing heartily with his buddies and jouncing down bumpy roads. “The doctors think that as we grow old there is great remedial power in mechanical vibrations. … I do not know which I owe the most to—the campfires or the car. I am only sure I took a most delightful shaking up such that I had not had for 40 years.”


The war to end all wars closed with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers returned home after twice “crossing the pond,” forever changed by horrific events. George Gershwin’s “Swanee” was a smash hit; the first fast foods for travelers—hot dogs and hamburgers—were dished out in roadside eateries across the land. The American Automobile Association’s Blue Book, nearly 1,400 pages for New York alone, listed car tours that touted North Country scenery and amenities, even if driving instructions were as obtuse as “follow good dirt road to end of road, turn right on fine gravel, winding and hilly” with nary a mention of cardinal direction or distance between, say, that iron bridge and this railroad crossing.

And the Vagabonds returned, this time with Henry Ford and a cast of dozens—Firestone and his son, Harvey Jr.; Edison; Burroughs; Japanese chef Harold Santo; photographer George Ebbing and a movie crew. They streamed through Adirondack villages, returning to some of the places where the initial caravan had rested, nearly incognito, three years before. Solitude was precious, often out of reach, thanks to stacked headlines like this from the Watertown Times that appeared shortly before a stop in Saranac Lake:
Edison and Ford in the Adirondacks
Party also includes John Burroughs, Naturalist
Roughing It for Two Weeks
Have Complete Outfit and Camp Where Night Overtakes Them
The reporter cautioned, “The party may arrive in Saranac Lake at any hour but it is doubtful they will remain but a short time, as they are out to really rough it and intend to shun all towns as much as possible and spend their time in the woods.”

On the 11-day, 1,100-mile journey Ford mixed business with pleasure, checking out Green Island in the Hudson near Albany for its factory potential, studying waterfalls for hydropower and hunting for feldspar that he thought would be commercially abundant. Hoping for a little privacy in the aftermath of a bruising court battle with the Chicago Tribune, he insisted that there would be no interviews, though he was cordial and joked about his bare feet with Lake Placid newsmen midway through the trip. “I’ve been to hundreds of summer resorts but no place impressed me any better than Lake Placid,” he said. “I do not want to talk about … libel suits or Bolsheviks, or anything except a vacation.”

“I am the boss of the expedition this year,” Burroughs told a reporter for State Service. “For the others it is a vacation but not for me. I spend all my life in the country so that it is not much of a change except for the extra work. I should say I am now seeking discomfort in a luxurious way.” The 82-year-old confided, “We are making about 60 miles a day. Edison is a dictator. He shuns all the state roads.”
Not surprisingly, there were innovations for this trip: a mobile kitchen piloted by Santo that had an icebox and a stove fed by the car’s gas tank, a truck with gear compartments, a Ford touring car driven by Ebbing, plus Ford’s own favorite wheels. Individual tents were spacious, and for dining there was a 20-by-20-foot shelter with a round table, complete with lazy Susan and lights.

The creature comforts were in contrast to the humble pastimes they pursued, like picking berries in Long Lake, bird watching or wading in creeks. While the Vagabonds were camped on Loon Lake, local luminaries—the Warren County sheriff and a prominent attorney plus others—am­bushed the party, demanding they turn over all the cars and equipment as the fine for trespassing. The lawman couldn’t keep a straight face when he saw the astonished reaction and the aborted arrest led to hours of story swapping and laughter under the starry sky.

In 1919 New York’s first cluster of public campsites—31 spots with fireplaces —was created off the road from Mc­Keever to Old Forge. By 1927 there were 22 state-run campgrounds in the park, including Fish Creek Pond, near Upper Saranac Lake, and Hearthstone Point, on Lake George, which could each ac­commodate 2,000 campers.

The legacies of Ford, Edison, Firestone and Burroughs are legion. But it can be argued that they were also the fathers of Adi­rondack car-camping, handsomely leading the parade of millions of travelers to come. Think about it: what do you remember most, lodging in a motel or sleeping out, with all the sounds, smells and sensations of another world? As Burroughs put it, “The thought of it, and the joy of it and the  good of it stays with one for many a day.”

Itinerary for the Vagabonds’ 1916 trip:

August 29  Orange, New Jersey, to Catskills. 82 miles
August 31  Albany to Cohoes, Saratoga Springs and Corinth. 55 miles
September 1  Corinth to Lake George to Indian Lake. 74 miles
September 2  Indian Lake to Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake, Tahawus, Schroon River and Elizabethtown. 93 miles
September 3  Elizabethtown to Westport, Essex, Keeseville, Au­sable Chasm and Au Sable Forks. 64 miles
September 4  Au Sable Forks to Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Paul Smiths and north. 73 miles
September 5  Malone, Mooers and Plattsburgh. 82 miles
September 6–9  Chazy Landing ferry to Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Trip ended in Orange, covering 73 miles on the last day.

See film footage of the Vagabonds’ 1916 Adirondack camping trip here.

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