Think of Henry Ford as you travel this Thanksgiving weekend.
Not because of the cars, but because he followed his yearning to roam. Back in 1916 he and pals Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and conservationist John Burroughs set out on the first of several annual road trips in Model Ts outfitted in the style of “glamping” (glamor camping).
As reported by the Detroit News, Ford had designed a car with a built-in stove and cooler, and a truck with show-quality custom bins for tents, beds and lawn chairs. Destinations were mountains and back roads of New York, Vermont (where the four stopped in at President Calvin Coolidge’s home), New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and northern Michigan.
Most believe that the road trips of these four, known as the Vagabonds, were intended to promote road construction so people would buy and use more cars. And it worked: By 1919 the federal government came up with 50/50 matching road building funds for states. I think, however, that Henry also knew a bit more about us humans — we seem compelled to move around, and that means many road miles on Turkey Day.
America had five million registered cars in Henry’s Vagabond days, while the rest of the world had less than one million. The U.S. had about 100,000 miles of highways, compared to about 4 million miles today. Railroads and their adjacent station hotels of the early 20th century were too expensive for common folk. Car campers, however, evolved into RVs as people yearned to leave their communities, and gain new ones, according to expert social analyst James B. Twitchell’s new book “Winnebago Nation.” Today more of us are seeking “unsettlements,” or communities continuously on the move.
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