By Rushad Thomas
Each year some 25,000 tourists make their way to the bucolic hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The beauty of this mountainous village alone warrants the trip, but the real draw of course is a visit to the historic village where Calvin Coolidge was born, reared and is laid to rest. Curious tourists and illustrious dignitaries alike have made the trip to the Notch over the years. One of the most famous visits came during the Coolidge Presidency when the site played host to a most curious gathering of “Vagabonds.” Those vagabonds, as they referred to themselves, were none other than industrial titans Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, and famed inventor Thomas Edison.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Vagabonds’ historic visit. Their 1924 visit to Plymouth Notch was one stop along their well-publicized peripatetic camping journeys along the Eastern Seaboard. The maven of Ford Motor Company hatched the idea for these trips partially as a marketing tactic to demonstrate the benefits of automobile ownership to the American people. The trips are widely credited with initiating a period of recreational car travel that turned America into a nation of holidaying tourists.
The camping trips began with Edison and Ford in 1914, and continued for the next ten years. One of the most famous installations of their progresses took place in 1918, with nature enthusiast and writer John Burroughs and Ford’s close friend and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone joining the group.
These travelers rode in style, with a caravan full of assistants and cooks. Their convoy included a staggering 50 vehicles, all Fords, with a fully-stocked kitchen car and a luxurious dining tent. Edison, of course, kept their campsites fully lit with his mobile electric generator. Jacketed waiters served the campers broiled lamb chops, grilled ham, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, and hot biscuits as they rested at the enormous round table which sat up to 20 people.
The Vagabonds’ journey led them to New England in the summer of 1924, and while they were staying in Ludlow, Vermont, they decided to call on President Coolidge at his family home in nearby Plymouth. The motorists were on their way to Canada, and it was thought that they might ask the President to join them for a portion of their journey, although the President would ultimately remain in Plymouth. The trio admired Coolidge, and when Ford was told that Coolidge had helped his Secret Service agents drive pegs into the ground to secure their tents at the homestead, he said: “Mighty smart man, that man Coolidge.”
On August 19, 1924, the Vagabonds made their pilgrimage to Plymouth Notch. The trio only remained at the Notch for a single hour, but that was long enough for the famous photograph of Ford, Firestone, Edison, and the Coolidge clan to be taken out in front of the clapboard house. The conversation that day was heavy on politics, with the three Vagabonds voicing high praise for Coolidge’s stewardship of the national government. Ford remarked that no issue existed in the presidential campaign “except Coolidge,” and lauded the President’s nomination acceptance speech, describing it as the finest he’d ever heard. Firestone predicted that Coolidge’s election would lead to “the greatest era of prosperity the country has ever known,” while Edison predicted a Coolidge win in November because of the President’s keen “horse sense.” “The people think he has more horse sense than anybody else. He don’t talk too much [sic],” the Wizard of Menlo Park quipped.
Gifts were also exchanged during the visit. When the President got word that the Vagabonds were on their way he rushed out to the sugar lot on the farm and retrieved a sap bucket that was used by his great-great grandfather, John Coolidge, one of the original settlers of Plymouth Notch. When the Vagabonds arrived the President presented the sap bucket to Henry Ford, who remarked upon receiving it that he appreciated the gift “more than any since I got Mrs. Ford.” Ford requested the President’s autograph on the bucket, and the President graciously obliged, appending “J. Coolidge, Plymouth” to the bottom of the pail. After all those present added their names to the bucket, President Coolidge then added “Made for and used by John Coolidge, an original settler of Plymouth. He died in 1822. Used also by Calvin Coolidge in the sugar lot when he was a boy at home.”
Pictures of this meeting between Coolidge and the Vagabonds received wide distribution through the press that summer. It is now remembered as one of the most famous photographs of the President ever taken at the Notch. No doubt the image of President and Mrs. Coolidge seated with Edison, Firestone, and Ford outside of the family home warmed the hearts of the American people. They could see in that image a symbol of the burgeoning prosperity that spread throughout the country during the Coolidge Presidency. As Garland Tucker put it in his 2010 book The High Tide of American Conservatism “Millions of Americans were thought to have been chuckling approvingly over their morning coffee at the sight of ‘Ol Silent Cal up on the farm in Vermont with those big-shot millionaires.” I couldn’t agree more.