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'The Vagabonds' author talks about Ford-Edison road trips

Jeff Guinn is the author of

Jeff Guinn is the author of "The Vagabonds," about the road trips taken by Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Photo Credit: Jill Johnson

Jeff Guinn has written acclaimed biographies about some really bad dudes: Charles Manson, Jim Jones and Clyde Barrow, along with one about a really good dude (1994's "The Autobiography of Santa Claus").
His 22nd book, "The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip" (Simon & Schuster, $28) 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. Their historic summer sojourns, which commenced in 1914, on the eve of World War I, changed America and the world forever.

With naturalist John Burroughs along on their first trip, they traveled to the heart of the Everglades, then a "big scary mess" Guinn writes. America read about it and watched it in newsreels.
The next year, tire maker Harvey Firestone joined them, 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.

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, "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 then was essentially newspapers, the two most famous Americans were 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."
Ford also gave birth to a moment in American history, he says, when "a few brave pioneers are beginning to think, 'You know, we can get in cars and go long distance,' " Guinn says.

Of course, 90 percent of U.S. roads were undriveable — mud and sharp rocks, he says. "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."
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 for road trips.
"It would have happened anyway without Ford and Edison," Guinn says. "I'm not saying that they were the absolute cause, but they were the examples that popularized the road trip."
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 theaters, 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."
By 1924, radio had widened the celebrity net to include athletes — baseball 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.

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