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Ford-Firestone link had deep roots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Several weeks ago, Ford Motor Co. announced that it was terminating its 104-year relationship with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in the wake of last year's recall of 6.5 million tires that were standard equipment on Ford's Explorer sport-utility vehicles.

The company's relationship with the tire maker dates to 1897, when founder Henry Ford purchased a set of tires for his first automobile from Harvey S. Firestone. In 1906, Ford's purchase of 2,000 sets of Firestone tires at $55 a set was at the time the single largest contract for tires in the world.

There are also family connections.

Firestone's granddaughter, Martha Parke Firestone, married Ford's grandson, William Clay Ford Sr., in 1948. Their son, William Clay Ford Jr., a Princeton graduate and a great-grandson of Henry Ford, is currently chairman of Ford Motor Co.

However, more than 80 years ago, Ford and Firestone, along with Thomas A. Edison and naturalist John Burroughs and their families, camped several times between 1918 and 1924 in the bucolic wilderness of Garrett County's Swallow Falls, now a state park, nine miles north of Oakland.

Surrounded by ancient hemlocks and cool pine-scented air, the men in what can only be described as an open-air think tank, would sit by Muddy Falls discussing their inventions and science.

Numbering about 35 in their party, they called themselves "the Vagabonds" and arrived in about a dozen touring cars - called "housecars" - that had been provided, naturally, by Ford.

During the 1920s, "auto-camping," as it was then called, was quickly finding favor with the American motoring public, but the Ford-Firestone auto peregrinations were far from being primitive or uncomfortable.

"They enjoyed the services of drivers and attendants to pitch their tents. They roughed it with the most modern conveniences, including battery-powered lighting arranged by Edison. Ford's personal chef prepared meals," wrote Paul Dickson and William D. Hickman in "Firestone - A Legend, a Century, a Celebration."

"The meals were served from a vehicle especially crafted by Ford. It had a kitchen and pantry, a large gasoline stove fed by the car's gas tank, an icebox and a rear panel that folded down into a table that seated 20. Travelers and guests were typically treated to a menu of broiled lamb chops, grilled ham, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, hot biscuits."

They slept in 10-by-10 tents and "when they emerged every morning for breakfast, each was immaculate in collar, tie and three-piece suit," noted Robert Lacey in his book, "Ford - The Men and the Machine."

Ford and Edison would amuse themselves by damming up streams and studying old mills, trying to figure out their power output.

Ford also scoured the countryside buying up old buggies, farm wagons and sawmill steam boilers that no doubt made their way to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Michigan.

Others who joined the group at various times included Luther Burbank, the famed naturalist, and Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

After a car bogged down in the mud on a rural back road, Ford's driver went for help and returned with a farmer at the wheel of a primordial Model T.

After Ford's Lincoln was extracted, he got out of the car and shook the farmer's hand.

"I guess you don't know me, but I'm Henry Ford. I made the car you're driving," said an article in the Detroit News.

"Firestone chimed in, 'I'm the man who made those tires.' Then he introduced two of the campers: 'Meet the man who invented electric light - and the president of the United States.'

"Luther Burbank was the last to shake hands. 'I guess you don't know me, either?' he asked." 'No,' said the farmer, 'but if you're the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn't be surprised if you said you were Santa Claus.' "

Edsel Ford, Henry's son who often went along on the trips, enjoyed relating the fate of a Locomobile, an early and now forgotten car, he was riding in.

The driver managed to get the vehicle trapped in the sticky mud of a back road and a team of mules were required to free the trapped machine.

"You ought to get what Pap got," the fellow with the mules told Edsel Ford. "He got one of them Fords, and he just goes through that mudhole a helling."

Because their expeditions began to attract more and more of the curious who sought them out in the backwoods, they ended in 1924.

"We became kind of a traveling circus," lamented Firestone.

Today, a marker in Swallow Falls State Park points to the historic campsite.

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