Enjoying Western Maryland Outdoors

Packing up the car and driving to enjoy outdoor recreation is something many of us do. A century ago, most people lived without basic comforts we enjoy today, like central heating and plumbing. It would have been unusual to consider driving to remote areas to camp or hike just for the pleasure of the activity. A group of famous friends, calling themselves the Vagabonds, started camping on a regular basis in the summers over 90 years ago, with the media reporting. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone, often with their wives, families and help, accompanied by others including naturalist John Burroughs and President Warren G Harding, led the trend towards summer vacation outdoor recreation trips. Staring with a trip to the Florida everglades by the Edison’s and Ford’s in 1914, the group vacationed nearly every summer for ten or more years, camping in Western Maryland during the summer of 1921.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding and Harvey Firestone pictured on a camping trip

Friends Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding and Harvey Firestone pictured on a camping trip that the four took together in Maryland with members of their families.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times in 1921

For two weeks, a week in Washington County (at what is now Camp Harding County Park), and a week in Garrett County (at what is now Swallow Falls State Park), Edison, Ford, and Firestone and their families, President Harding, and other friends enjoyed the beauty of travelling through and camping in Western Maryland. At a time when most Americans worked long hours six days a week, there was not much time for recreation. Better working conditions, more leisure time, and the popularity of autos, created a demand for more public parks and forests. The famous group of campers and their entourage were much publicized by the news reporters, and helped create awareness of motoring trips and outdoor recreation.

In 1921, there were only 4,000 acres of state forest in Maryland. Today, Maryland has nearly a half million acres of public lands. The publicity of the camping trip helped precipitate an agreement between the State and the Masonic Lodge that owned the Swallow Falls 600 acre area two years later to allow public use of the land, and resulted in the Lodge donating the land to the State in 1940.

Camping 1921

Gathered around their Lazy Susan camp table near Hagerstown, Maryland in 1921, clockwise from just left are William F. Anderson, Methodist bishop of Ohio; Harvey Firestone Sr.; George B. Christian. Jr.; Mrs. Thomas A. Edison; Thomas Edison; Mrs. Henry Ford; President Harding; Mrs. Firestone, Sr.; Henry Ford; Mrs. Anderson; Edsel B. Ford; Mrs. Firestone, Jr.; Harvey Firestone, Jr. and Russell A. Firestone. President Warren G. Harding (right of center) dines with Thomas Edison (left of Harding) and Henry Ford (right of Harding).

Credit: Library of Congress.

On July 24, 1921, at the Washington County campsite, the group held a memorial service for their friend and fellow camper John Boroughs who had recently died. Boroughs’ quote, “To the woods and the fields or to the hills…there to breathe their beauty like the very air…to be not a spectator of, but a participator in it all,” continues to capture the spirit of the outdoors.

After President Harding returned to Washington, the group motored 90 miles to Muddy Creek in Garrett County. Travelling west on Route 40 through Allegany County, past Green Ridge Mountain, they enjoyed scenic beauty that can still be found on the old route 40. Heading south from Keyser’s Ridge they drove on dirt roads that are now MD Route 219. Much of the town turned out to greet them as they passed through Oakland. After enjoying lunch next to a creek near Deer Park, they traveled unimproved roads about nine miles and set up camp at Muddy Creek Falls, which is present day Swallow Falls State Park. A wooden bridge on the road coming into their campsite caved in from the weight of the camp kitchen truck taking up the rear and blocked the road.

Cut off from the press and public, the group found the most solitude they had enjoyed since they had been camping together. Sleeping in later that first morning, they first morning they sat in canvas camp chairs by the Muddy Creek Falls for hours, swapping funny stories of their youth with the background roar of the waterfall, bird songs, and breezes through the old growth hemlocks.

Newspaper reports eventually made it to the campsite to cover the adventures of these well-known men and their families for a very interested national audience. Thomas Edison, in a talkative mood at Muddy Creek was quoted as saying, “The woods will get you if you don’t watch out…Stay out close to nature and you won’t want to come back to the civilizing influences of trolley cars, telephones, porcelain bathtubs and nickel plumbing.” Another observation of Edison at Muddy Creek Falls stated, “I like to get out in the woods and live close to nature. Every man does. It is in his blood. It is his feeble protest against civilization.’’

The group having passed through coal mining areas during their travels, the press captured this quote of Henry Ford’s observations on energy, “The common sense thing to do is to take the coal out of the mines and take all the by-products- light oils, coke, tar, benzyl, gas, etc.. We do that in Detroit. We use 3,000 tons of coal a day and we have enough valuable by-products left over after using everything we need in our plants to sell coke to the city of Detroit and put gas in the city gas mains.”

Heavy rains came on July 30th when they had planned to drive from Muddy Creek Falls to their next campsite at Elkins, West Virginia. The roads were muddy and impassable, forcing them to stay another day in Maryland, and allowing them to celebrate Henry Ford’s 58th birthday at Muddy Creek Falls in Maryland. At the time, Thomas Edison was 74, and Harvey Firestone was the youngest at 52 years of age. On July 31 the sky cleared, and with the bridge repaired, they headed in their cars for the next camp site near Elkins, West Virginia, over muddy but passable roads.

Quotes and photos from the Maryland DNR Forest Service website

Article by Tom Anderson, FCFCDB member

Nature Notes for 11/6/2011