1916 - 1924

Camping in Nature's Laboratory with Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service

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.”

These heavily publicized trips not only became a tradition of chasing a piece of tranquility and bringing these industrialists back to nature, but effectively inspired a generation of Americans to hit the open road.

Adirondacks/Green Mountains

On August 28th, 1916, three days after Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service, Edison embarked on a two week camping trip to the Catskills and Adirondacks with Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs.

A note written by Thomas Edison to Harvey Firestone in regards to their 1916 camping trip.

Photo: From a souvenir album printed by Harvey Firestone.

Video: Thomas Edison finds time to relax in a hammock during the 1916 camping trip.

Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs enjoy breakfast at their campsite in 1916.

Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.

American Automobile Association Touring Bureau letter to Edison's Secretary, William H. Meadowcroft, regarding road conditions.

En route to their first stops on the trip, a car in the caravan broke down. Ford’s skills came into play as he repaired and replaced the necessary parts of the machine. This setback delayed their progress that day, causing them to telephone the Summit Hotel in Unionville, PA for rooms.

Firestone takes his turn in a cradling contest as Ford looks on near Cheat Mountain, West Virginia - August 22.

Burroughs and Edison are seen in the background at Camp Tuckahoe near White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Ferrying the Jackson River in Virginia - August 23.

Burroughs, Edison, and Firestone - Early morning at Camp Tuckahoe, near White Sulphur Springs, WV. August 24, 1918.

Edison, Firestone, and Burroughs visit with the locals while at their camp.

"It was a great pleasure to see Edison relax and turn vagabond so easily, sleeping in his clothes, curling up at lunch time on a blanket under a tree and dropping off to sleep like a baby.”
John Burroughs, In Nature’s Laboratory, 1916
Camp Tazewell - August 26th.

Hagerstown, Maryland and Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Seated in the photo are (L-R) Ford, Edison, President Warren G. Harding, Bishop William F. Anderson, and Firestone.

The above document and the ones that follow are in regards to the planning of the 1921 camping trip.

The camping party, including Thomas & Mina Edison, President Harding, and Henry Ford, gathers around the table for dinner in 1921.

Ford, Edison, President Harding, and Firestone chat during their camping trip.

1924 Trip
South Sudbury Massachussetts, Plymouth, Vermont. Visit to President Calvin Coolidge.

Abercrombie & Fitch wood-frame folding chair, used during the camping trips, one of three canvas chairs in the museum collection of Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The park’s collection also includes camp pillows, a canteen, tent stakes and a grill.

The group sits around the table for a meal in the shade during the 1924 camping trip.

Edison and Ford during the 1924 camping trip.

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.

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