It’s the photos that do it. The black-and-white shots of the ‘vagabonds’ romping through the backcountry without a care in the world. They’re like big kids let loose for a few days. They’re not exactly roughing it, though — an army would be envious of their supplies.
The self-styled vagabonds in question aren’t exactly short of cash — they could easily be lapping it up in lavish resorts if they so wished. But it strikes me that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone get more out of the sense of adventure and normality than they do from pampering.
The inventor, the car manufacturer and the tyre magnate were three of the world’s biggest names in the early 20th century. Edison and Ford, in particular, had both extraordinary wealth and extraordinary pulling power. The guests they’d occasionally bring along on their adventures included presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge — and nothing untoward was thought of this.
The little gang took expeditions in various parts of the US, but the favoured destination was Fort Myers in southern Florida. Both Edison and Ford had winter estates here — now turned into a museum where the photographs are on display.
The pair first met at an Edison company convention in 1896. At the time, Ford was the chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company, and they later became both friends. They also collaborated — Edison providing the battery and starting system for the Ford Model T.
Edison was the first to come to Fort Myers — buying the land in 1886 and building his property the next year. He invited the Edison family down in 1914 to go camping in the Everglades. They had such a good time that Ford built a bungalow there opposite Edison’s two years later.
Over the years, the houses were expanded into something much grander, although the main appeal was still largely the proximity to the Everglades. Edison went as far as to set up a laboratory there, so he could work on potential inventions while escaping the harsh northern winter.
The main concentration was on something that Edison really isn’t associated with though — botany. Along with Firestone, he was determined to find a rubber tree that could grow cheaply and efficiently in the States. Over 17,000 samples were tested until one that could work was stumbled upon. But the project was passed on to the US Department of Agriculture when he died.
The fascination with plants also extends to the gardens, which are arguably the most notable part of the twin estates. The pair of industrialists moved down to a backwater, and turned it into a take on utopia that involved very little whirring machinery.
Fort Myers has expanded significantly since, but it’s striking how quickly it gives way to the wilds that drew Edison and Ford to this part of Florida in the first place. The town disappears in the rear view mirror, and the gloopy, green wilderness of the Everglades completely take over. Out there, among the alligators and herons, today’s great inventors may well be setting up camp.
Read David’s Florida feature in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK), on sale 3 September 2015.