In recognition of the National Park Service Centennial, this exhibit of historic photos and documents explores the camping trips of Thomas Edison and his friends Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. From 1916 to 1924 Edison and his friends enjoyed annual camping trips. They called themselves the vagabonds and for two weeks in August and September they traveled by car along dusty roads, camping near mountain streams or farm fields.
They didn’t “rough it” exactly. They brought along tents, camping equipment, servants and a fully functioning, well-stocked kitchen. Sometimes they stayed in hotels to enjoy clean sheets and hot baths.
For the vagabonds, the trips were a chance to get away from the pressures of business and relax. But the photographs and documents, preserved today in the Thomas Edison National Historical Park archives, remind us of the broader forces that helped create of the National Park System, including a new appreciation of unspoiled nature and the rise of personal automobile travel that made nature more accessible.
The National Parks were an antidote to a rapidly industrializing America. As Edison wrote in June 1916, two months before President Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service: “while mankind appears to be drifting into an artificial life of merciless commercialism there are still a few who have not been caught in the meshes of this frenzy, and who are still human, and enjoy the wonderful panorama of the mountains, the valley and the plain with their wonderful content of living things.”
Firestone's letter to Edison inviting him on another camping trip in 1926. Edison's response in pencil reads: Firestone, I am having so much trouble with my stomach this year that I could not go on any trip this year for which I am very sorry." The 1924 camping trip would be Edison's last. In 1926 he had to decline Firestone's invitation due to poor health, and his health declined further in the next few years. Edison died in 1931 at 84.