The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, by Jeff Guinn

Eight stars

It is always interesting to learn about people of some fame, particularly when one can trace and note interactions they had with other people of notoriety. Jeff Guinn has penned this quasi-biography about four such men during a decade in the early 20th century. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs—dubbed The Vagabonds—took annual trips together during the decade of 1913-23. During these trips, these men not only took time away from their chaotic business lives, but also spent time strengthening their personal and business friendships. Guinn explores how Ford and Edison, the closest of the group, forged strong friendship as they helped one another in their respective business ventures. These annual trips would garner much media and public attention, creating a caravan of notoriety wherever the group went. That being said, the Vagabonds sought some degree of isolation during their repose, keeping everyone else at arm’s length. Guinn explores how these men would, at times, invite other people of prominence to attend their annual sojourns, only twice allowing wives to attend. While John Burroughs was the odd man out, without a wife and who died before the end of these trips, the other three found themselves bantering a great deal. Guinn mixes in some much needed context and work-related commentary to provide the reader with any idea of what was taking place throughout. If ever there could be an event that encapsulated notoriety, camaraderie, and brotherly love, it would be the annual trips made by these men, who fame held up without the journeys, but was further strengthened when people read of their adventures. Guinn does a wonderful job at connecting the experience with the goings-on in the world at the time. Recommended for those who love American history, as well as the reader who enjoys something a little lighter about these historical heavyweights.

I recently completed a full-length biography of Thomas Edison, which helped me put some of what Guinn discusses in better context. While Ford did find himself mentioned throughout that tome, the extent to their friendship was never fully understood until I took the time to allow Guinn to present it here. Dividing each chapter into a year during this decade of adventures, Guinn tackles events of a single calendar year and contrasts some of the major events found therein. He is able to adequately explore the lives of all four men, including some of the lesser known parts of Edison and Ford’s banter over political goings-on in the country. The jovial nature in which Guinn presents the book keeps the reader wanting to know more. While there is surely a great deal to tackle, Guinn does not overload the reader with too much, choosing more of a superficial or scattered approach to give the reader context and encourage them to explore more on their own. All the same, Guinn, who has a wonderful knack of pulling me in with most anything he writes, is able to recount the needed information and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. This was a fraternity like no other found in history, though Guinn makes it seem more congenial than competitive. A wonderful complement to the aforementioned biography I read last week and now I will look for something on Ford, Firestone, and perhaps even Burroughs as well!

Kudos, Mr. Guinn for a masterful piece of work. I am glad I took the time to explore this one and cannot wait to see what I can uncover about the Vagabonds in the coming months.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: