tv QA Jeff Guinn The Vagabonds CSPAN May 25, 2020 5:59am-6:59am EDT
susan: jeff guinn, what is the story you tell in the book, "the vagabonds"? jeff: the story i meant to tell is how america morphed into a car culture, from horse and wagon to everybody wanting cars to go places. i did not know until i started researching that henry ford and thomas edison were at the forefront of this, so the book became a story about that point. susan: how did the idea come to you for telling this story? jeff: what i try to do is go everywhere the people i write about went. i always use my car. i'd rather drive, and that way you really get a sense of place. somewhere along the line in the 30,000 or so miles i drive every year i started wondering how we got to be a country, a culture where we take for granted we are going to get in a car and go everywhere we want to. since i did not know, i thought it would be a good idea to write
a book about that. as always happens when you look into history, there is more to it than you ever expected. susan: your book begins and ends with someone that's a minor character in the book by the name of jep bisbee. we are going to show his picture on screen. who was he and why was he interesting to you? jeff: one of the things that struck me as i researched the book was how the vagabonds, for it, edison, whatever friends might be with them on that trip, could literally change the lives of anyone they met. they were considered magicians for all the things they brought to our culture and people expected they could work miracles. sometimes they did. jep bisbee was an elderly country fiddler working out of paris, michigan, playing barn dances and so forth, and that was pretty much the height of his musical career. he was listed in local archives as a shoemaker. henry ford had heard about jeff's music and unexpectedly in
1923, jep bisbee's wife opens their door in this little tiny, isolated town and there stands henry ford asking to meet her husband. can he play for ford? ford hating jazz which, of course, was going to send america into ruin. he loved folk music. he was enthralled with jep bisbee's playing on his fiddle and thomas edison, equally so. edison promptly offered him a contract recording in his new jersey studios. bisbee went and recorded his music, this was covered by all the major papers of the day. suddenly, this little old man, this very traditional american musician, becomes in parts of the country a household name. so much so that when he died a decade later, "the new york times" ran his obituary and to the end of his life, he said no one would have known me, but for
mr. ford and mr. edison, and i thought that was a great example of how during these trips out in the country away from the big cities, they really did touch the lives of ordinary americans and changed them in wonderful ways. susan: we want to listen to just a little bit of jep bisbee's music so people can get a sense of what interested ford and edison. ♪ susan: just a little bit of the music. would a lot of americans be listening to music of this type of this era? jeff: very much so. edison invented the phonograph back in the 1870's, which first
brought music into americans homes. and so edison was looked to as one of those people, if he is recording it, it must be someone special. with jazz, which was considered a sort of heavy metal music of its area, starting to bother a lot of older americans who thought it was sinful and leading young people into criminality and non-virtue. going back, hearkening to old american folk tunes, based on foreign folk tunes, but we did not think about that as much, it simply was refreshing and it was something different and it was endorsed by edison and so people listened. susan: what are the parallels between the time period that you are writing about, which is 1914 to 1924, america in that age, and any parallels of the time that we're going through? jeff: that is what astonished me most when i was writing the book. the more i write about history the more i see it's cyclical. we really don't learn from things in the past. america, 1914 to 1924, is an
america in transition. it's in transition because of invention. because of technology. things people never would have thought of 20 or 30 years earlier were now part of everyday lives. modern times, let's think about the cell phone. it was something very few people had a phone they carried around and all of a sudden it seemed as though everyone did. in america, 1914, for the first time cars are becoming something that are part of your life if you're an ordinary american. henry ford introduced the model t in 1908, it's the first affordable car for the working class so people can get in the car and go places even if they are only of ordinary means. because of edison with electric light and electric power, you can read if you want to late into the night, instead of a candle making your eyes tired. edison with the kinetoscope,
edison has moved movie theatres really into creation because for the first time a lot of people can sit in a darkened room and watch something on a screen. so young people can listen to music, they can dance in ways they hadn't before, but at the same time you have older folks saying, wait a minute, this is getting away from the way america's supposed to be and one of the reasons henry ford becomes so popular is because he seems to represent to the people who don't want america to change, the way things have always been and should be, a good, sturdy, conservative protestant place where yes, there are all these inventions, but you don't let them take over your lives and dominate. susan: how often did you see parallels between henry ford and donald trump? jeff: i could not stop. i guess the first moment was this.
henry ford thought about running for president in 1916, came very close because he was a pacifist and didn't want america going into world war i. chose not to run because wilson kept us out of war and became a wilson supporter because of the league of nations afterward. doesn't think about running in 1920, but 1923, 1924, he's a very viable candidate and in a new york times dissection of what the coming race may mean, they point out president harding has died, there is a vice president most people don't know anything about. henry ford would have the support, it was believed, of voters in middle america. he's maligned in newspapers and all of the main media on the coasts constantly. he's an idiot. he doesn't know what he's talking about. he's a bumbler, and he said himself he wanted to become president so he could throw a wrench in it.
he did not have any particular ideas, besides the fact telling everyone they are all crooks and idiots. we need a businessman to go in. the thought was if henry ford got his party's nomination, he'd lose the popular vote because the coasts were most populated, but because he'd dominate middle america at the western states in much of the south he would probably win in the electoral college and become president. it was that close. henry ford could have become president, and i promise you, the things we are seeing now, a lot of the same things would have happened then. susan: you write that he was disdainful of people who read books. jeff: oh, very, very much. he did not like people who wrote books because he said that kept people from doing things. they did not think. he did not like people who wrote books. he didn't like the media. he sued the chicago tribune at one point for $1 million for character defamation and when
reporters would come out to cover the vagabonds' trips, he'd lecture them that they had to tell the right news, the right stories, that presented america the way it should be. he certainly would have been hollering about fake news as loud or louder as the current incumbent and he would attract the same kind of following. susan: i want to spend time with your two major protagonists so we understand, because they're the vehicle if you pardon my pun for telling this story. we have a video that we found in your two major protagonists so the ford archives. jeff: yes. susan: we should talk about the ford archives because they're extensive. jeff: they're amazing. susan: was this something henry ford himself started to preserve his legacy and the company or was it a later on addition? jeff: henry ford understood the the ford archives. value of publicity and a lot of the vagabonds' trips, besides the idea of some friends getting out and having fun, is that you get your names in the newspaper every day, your products are obviously going to benefit.
and so he would hire cinematographers to come along on these trips and make the news available for newsreels to be shown in movie theaters. he wanted america to see how much fun you could have traveling in a car, and at the same time, if the names ford and edison made you go buy something, even better. susan: this is a film that the company produced in the 1950's to tell its story. let's watch a little bit of it. ♪ >> the cars began coming off the assembly line at the rate of one every 40 seconds. and what henry ford had foreseen happened: mass production on the assembly line drove the price of the model t down from $850 to $300. now everybody could have one.
susan: some statistics to understand the magnitude of this cheap production of cars. what are some of the things that you found out about america before the model t and after? jeff: 1900, when there is no model t, just heavy, expensive cars only the rich can afford, 800 passenger cars in all of america. 1908, henry ford introduces the model t. in 1910, there are now half 1 million cars on the roads. half of those are model t's. by 1920, there are 8 million passenger cars in america, 4 million model t's and over half the people who own cars now use them for leisure travel, besides going to and from work. it happened that quickly. it would not have happened without henry ford. the assembly line, turning out cars in 40 seconds, was the work of a mastermind. it took about two hours per car
for his competitors. and you know the joke, you can only get the model t in black. there was a reason for that. ford insisted on black paint because it dried faster. that meant you saved a few cents on every car going through the line. he passed it on to the consumer. susan: he was also responsible for where steering wheels are today, i found out. jeff: he was a visionary! there's a lot of things about henry ford that are not admirable. but if you get in an american car today, the steering wheel on the left side because ford was the first one to perceive that the people in cars, the passengers, were going to change. they were the property of men only for a long time, because it was so hard to drive and the roads were so rough. but ford saw that more women were going to be in cars. of course, the men would still drive, because that's the role of men, they take control. but the ladies in their nice dresses would be seated nearby, and roads were still dirt and
mud and everything else. with americans driving on the right-hand side of the road, if the steering wheel was on the left, ford believed, that meant you could pull up to the curb, and the lady could step out on the sidewalk and not get their shoes and clothes dirty. and it seems like a very sexist thing, and of course it is, but it still is the reason to this day that the steering wheel is on the left-hand side. before that it could be wherever the manufacturer put it. more often, on the right then the left. susan: just to understand how profound the change was in society, you write in the book, prior to the introduction of the automobile, most americans never ventured more than 12 miles from their home. that was a shocking statistic to me. logical when you think about it, but shocking how closed and small people's worlds were. jeff: very much so. and the whole idea of driving anywhere, up until cars became popular, thanks to ford, was
difficult, because 90% of american roads were referred to as "wish to god roads," as in drivers would wish to god they could drive over something besides dirt, stone, and mud. tires blew out every hundred yards or so, and were hard to repair. rocks tore up cars, and they were so expensive to repair. ford build hills model t out of vanadium steel, a lighter metal, the model t weighed 1200 pounds, compared to twice that much for competitor's cars. that meant even when the road was rough, the model t road higher and lighter and could go farther over the roads. so yes, for the first time, you could get in a car, you could go 100 miles to visit grandma for sunday dinner, and you didn't have to worry as much about having to change the tires eight times and getting hundreds of dollars' worth of repairs on the car afterwards. 12 miles had been the limit
people would travel because that's how far a horse and wagon could go comfortably and back in one day. henry ford also gave us distance. susan: how frequently would people take train trips before that? jeff: that was how they traveled. there were two problems with that. the first, of course, the rails themselves. you would go where the trains would go. second was the schedule. the third was the fact that cars -- it cost a couple bucks to take the train somewhere. if you had a car which you purchased for a few hundred dollars, thanks to henry ford, you put in a couple of gallons of gasoline, 20 or 22 cents a gallon, don't we wish those days were back, you could actually go on a trip and do it economically and you can go where you wanted at whatever time you wanted to leave. that was impossible with trains. you now have flexibility and economy. susan: when you hear henry ford, this was outside the window of
your story in 1932 and is giving advice to young men. just so we can see and hear what the man sounded like, let's watch. >> a greater burden than abraham lincoln carried. it is common sense and there is a solution to the problem. susan: you write at the time at the turn of the century in the last couple of decades the most famous man of the century. jeff: there weren't a whole lot of famous people in america. this is before radios, before movies and before television. mostly, american heroes had been military leaders and politicians. with the advent not just of newspapers, but newswires, so that something could happen with part of america one day and be in newspapers in other parts of
america the next, we started to see a few more people emerge. actors, mark twain the author, and so forth. but when thomas edison brings music into the home and when he brings films that much closer to large audiences seeing them, when he comes up with the incandescent bulb so your house and business have electric light, edison became the most famous man in america. everyone knew his name. thanks to newsreels, thanks to newspapers, everyone knew his face. henry ford, not only because of the model t, but the five dollar workday in 1914 when he doubled the salary of his employees and pretty much forced competitors to have to raise the salaries of the people they employed, he brought more money into the pockets of working americans. with his car, with edison, the
things he had done, there were things you could do with that money. you could get out of your house and have some fun in ways that were unimaginable a generation earlier. they were the two celebrities, they were the kardashians of their day. if we had had the same media at that time, people would have given them a funny name. they would have been fordison, or something. literally every american knew where they were and were fascinated by whatever they did or said. susan: they were both complex personalities, as you described. one aspect of it which you talk about in your book in great detail is henry ford's antisemitism. were you surprised by that with your research? jeff: we all hear things about henry ford if we study history. the extent of his anti-semitism came as a shock to me. the way he used the newspaper that he had purchased, the dearborn independent, used it
almost exclusively for seven years to try to publicize what he claimed was a jew plot to take over the american economy and cause war and all kinds of things, dominate business, wall street, the works. it was terrible then and it was unforgivable then as it is now. in the context of the time, we remember ford is out of the midwest, the son of a farmer. in the midwest in the late 1800s, when he is growing up in the early 1900's, anything that's not white and protestant is looked on with suspicion. catholics were considered exotic. ford was speaking to prejudice that he felt was widespread around the country. but there were going to be enough people who felt like he did that he would support whatever he was saying. the things he said seemed awful now.
they were awful then, but he was speaking to a prejudice that was widespread and existed at the time. susan: this was also the time of jim crow laws and a really terrible story of race relations at this time in american history. did henry ford or thomas edison ever hire african americans? jeff: ford, definitely. ford was ahead of his time in hiring african americans and not only that, some of them achieved management positions. i don't believe he felt that black americans, as a rule, were the equal of white americans, but he also believed in workers and quality of work and giving people a chance to come up the ladder, as long as they were not jewish. and yet he contradicted himself in this, in that he was suspicious and loathed jews as a group, but there would be individual members of the jewish faith that he would respect and think of as friends. he couldn't understand why they would be upset with him when his newspaper starts publishing all
these outrageous claims. edison also was in a certain sense anti-semitic. he wasn't as overt about it as ford, but we see it in his private correspondence with ford. and some of his other letters to people on the subject. he was very much a racist in terms of african americans. some of the recordings of his company were based on racial prejudice. he had records out there he was selling "coon ball," or fight at a colored saloon, supposedly with the sounds of black men cursing each other and slashing with razors. prejudice has always been part of america, very regrettably. it was very commercial in their times. they were to some extent bigoted
themselves and is reflected in their work and words. susan: both men's legacies are themselves and is reflected in their work and words. well preserved. we referenced the ford company's archive. anyone watching this can go online and find extensive access to henry ford and ford motor company, and also with mr. edison. how did the particular companies themselves deal with these less savory parts of their main characters? jeff: i would say that, as i was researching the book, the ford motor company was very helpful, though somewhat concerned that the book might just be about some of ford's less attractive beliefs and qualities. but if you go to the ford museum in dearborn and you go to the benson ford research center there, they have right there for anyone to see who wants to, every copy of the dearborn independent with all the very unfortunate things that are in it.
their archives contain the materials that demonstrate just what an antisemite henry ford was. thomas edison research park in west orange, new jersey, the same thing. the archives of their lives that had been preserved for us are very objective, and you can find in them what you look for. when i'm writing a book, i'm not trying to say one thing or the other. i am trying to give balance in context, which i hope i did. susan: so a little bit more on thomas edison. what are the ages of the two men during the ten years that you write about them? jeff: thomas edison is about a decade and a half older than henry ford. we have to remember, their relationship began when henry ford is working for one of thomas edison's companies in detroit, as a young engineer, who's got this great idea for a gasoline powered car.
and he worships thomas edison. he forces his way almost on to ford is working for one of edison, almost, at a company banquet to say, i have done this wonderful thing i want to tell you about. edison, who's used to dealing with young whippersnappers who have some great invention, said you've got, it that's the thing. keep at it. and he completely forgot it. ford decided that he had edison's blessing with his project. some years later, when ford has introduced the model t, which is one of the most famous and wealthy americans, he writes asking for an autographed picture of edison and edison not only sends a picture, but says, i'd really like to meet mr. ford, he seems interesting. he had forgotten the whole thing. but when they met, it was an instant warm bond for this reason. they are now the two most famous men in america. they've accomplished so much, everyone knows their name. but no one else but the two of them can understand the pressure, because once you
produce a miracle for the public, then you are expected to keep on doing it. whatever you did yesterday is never enough. there must be more. they understood that in each other. they could talk to each other, they could relate in a way that no other two people in the country or in the world could. so, they became fast and close friends. two men who did not trust most people and did not have many friends. susan: where did the idea come up for the vagabonds and the road trips? jeff: almost by accident. in 1914, thomas edison and his wife nina invited henry and clara ford and john burroughs who was a naturalist and a close friend of henry ford to come visit them at their estate and in fort myers during the
winter. sometime in january, a lot of wealthy americans would go south but fort myers was a wild place, really. it was not the more sophisticated east of florida. burroughs, being a naturalist and ford loved ornithology, and edison always want to learn more things. the idea was they would take a car right into the everglades. there would be lots of exotic plants and animal life and there would be an adventure. it was pointed out to them that there were not really any roads there, it was dangerous, there were alligators and people could die, but they knew better. the trip lasted a day and a half. there was a monsoon, there were snakes, there were alligators, they fled, but they liked the idea, so it came about that they would take a trip once a year if they could, but with a little better planning so disaster would be less looming. susan: i want to spend a minute with the inclusion of burroughs, and then there is a fourth character with a very famous last name of firestone. but the naturalist -- he was very well-known to americans and our presidential history study
here and there pictures here with theodore roosevelt. why was he a welcome part of this very wealthy couple and their families? jeff: john burroughs was one of the most famous naturalists in america. he had this long santa beard and he looked unique and he was a crusty old coot, and when everyone else would talk about mother nature kind of like a disney film, burroughs talked about nature being competition, only the strongest survived. he loved to ramble and write about things. theodore roosevelt was his first famous sort of supporter and he took a trip with roosevelt to yellowstone national park. henry ford had read burroughs' writings. he did not like to read much, but he liked john burroughs. and so when burroughs began speaking out against the model t, demon on wheels, soon it's going to pollute every quiet
corner of the forest, he sent burroughs a model t and said, try it, i bet you will like it. his attempt at driving did not work well, it was an unfortunate instance with a barn and the car colliding, but boroughs and ford became friends and he appreciated ford's real interest in nature. he also appreciated the fact that ford purchased outright burroughs' farm birthplace that was in danger of being taken by the banks. so for burroughs, it's great publicity. and he just liked him. susan: it was harvey firestone and we know his name from tires like we know today, and logical that he would be a business partner. how did he become friends and included in that group? jeff: henry ford had few friends, but if he liked you, particularly if he thought if
you kept your word and had a lot of common sense then he would accept you. harvey firestone was a young man that started out with snake oil and from there carriage wheels and he got the idea that there should be tires for cars which would be the next big thing, but not tires that blew up all the time. he developed a kind of tire that was narrower and firmer than the old-fashioned tires, did not explode as much. he needed to find some big manufacturer who would use those tires to bring them out into the minds of consumers. he talked ford into trying firestone tires and ford who very much hated planned obsolescence, he thought it was the duty of the manufacturer to give to the consumer something not only dependable, but that would last a long time. he was impressed with firestone tires and bought 2000
originally. he got them for the price that had been promised. they delivered the quality that had been promised. so he started using firestone tires on his cars. clearly that meant harvey firestone went from nowhere to being one of the tire magnates of the industry. so it would have served him well to be friends with henry ford, but one of the things about firestone is here you have a man who has done so much on his own. now he's going out as part of the vagabonds with ford and edison, who treat him like a punky kid brother, and he has to run the errands and do all the things. and he's happy to do it. not just because he owes so much to ford, but because he really respects them. and he enjoys being around them and listening to them, of the four travelers in "the vagabonds," i think most of us would like to go on a trip with harvey firestone.
susan: the first vagabond fort myers adventure was 1914. what were the years of ensuing vagabond trips? jeff: it picks up in 1915, out in california, when part of the trip is made from los angeles to san diego by car. and from there, 1916 on, except with one interruption in 1917 for the war, and then there is another interruption in 1922, because of certain economic financial problems going on, they kept doing these trips through 1924. they stopped after 1924, according to them, because too many people were crowding around them and there was too much attention paid and they couldn't relax. the opposite was true. susan: in 1915, there was one sentence in your book that struck me. "despite the european war, 1915 remained a time of wonder in the united states." why? jeff: let's think about it for a minute. in 1915, yes, all these terrible
things are happening overseas. but for the first time, technologically, industrially, america is the shining light in the world. thanks to the five dollar day introduced by ford -- i mean, it is not just because of ford and edison. you've got the telephone, with alexander graham bell, you've got these other things. for the first time, americans don't have to basically think, go to work, make a subsistence living, come home to candlelight and when it gets dark, you go to bed. in work, in leisure, in all the amenities that suddenly were there, it is such a huge change. in one generation, the parents of working class americans in 1915 would never have imagined these wonders could be possible. and all of a sudden, life has changed, and leisure, and the extra things you can do, become
just about as important as the work you do to support yourself. it was an entirely different culture, and it happened in a generation. susan: we have some video to show what these trips were like. today, i think the word is "glamping." it was really not four men roughing it. but a large entourage. let's show a bit of what these trips look like and what their times of camping on the road were. we've got photographs and video of these folks with cooks. how many people would go on them? jeff: you might have as many as 20 staff members coming along. the idea was that they want to go out and have fun.
they wanted to demonstrate, hey, guess what? you get in your car, you go do these things, too. but they were not going to try to like their own campfires. they were not going to eat cold beans out of cans. they were not just going to put a blanket on the ground. they had all these different amenities. they had a refrigerated car powered by edison batteries, so they could have fresh dairy. they had chefs who would prepare gourmet meals at night. in the morning they would dress in freshly ironed clothes. but you see, they were so famous, and america was so grateful to them, that that didn't matter. the point was, hey, we are out in cars, traveling and seeing these things. you can do it too, and they didn't go to big cities. they went out into the boonies, where a lot of people had not even seen a car. so for ordinary americans, they are saying, we are not exactly like you are, but the basic parts of this are the same. try it for yourself! susan: how did ordinary americans follow their exploits? jeff: they followed them through the newspapers, and i promise you, you look back, every newspaper, every day on these trips, would have reports on
where they were, what the camp looked like, if they stopped to eat at a cafe, what did they have for lunch? now, for the big media, and by that, we mean big city newspapers in those days, they regularly mocked ford for his political beliefs and some of the really crazy things he had to say about history and so forth -- he got so much wrong. at the same time, while they are convincing their readers editorially, this guy is a nut, he is not worth your attention, do not listen to him. working class americans loved him so much that the papers had no choice. they had to constantly write about him because that's how people got subscriptions. what is henry ford up to today? if you worship henry ford and you think the big cities are suspicious anyway you don't care what the new york times says in the editorial or the chicago tribune. but when your local paper carries a "new york times" wire
service story about where the vagabonds camped last night and this wonderful thing that happened that was amazing that you just have to read about, they had to run those stories, too. the big media in many ways looked down on them, but had no choice. they still had to cover them. susan: here's another bit of film. this one is the combination of henry ford and naturalist burroughs, and it looks like they were having a tree chopping contest. [laughter] you can talk over this because it is silent of course. jeff: this is 1920, john burroughs is very sick. there was a business slump so the vagabonds were not going to go out on the trip at all, but they needed to show the have faith in the business community. they went to a place only rich people went, this is the only time they did that, but they
needed to get attention. something newsworthy had to happen so that the newspaper would cover it. they were 80 years old. so ford was challenged to a tree chopping contest and thomas edison was the timekeeper. the press, we have to see what happens here. and it was a fix, but burroughs has this little slender tree and ford takes on a much thicker tree. burroughs wins, but the main thing is, everyone in america reads about how burroughs bested ford. they were masters of publicity. susan: in your notes of mr. burroughs you write he was a world class griper and whined about everything. why did they continue to include him? [laughter] jeff: we all have a grumpy old grandfather, uncle that's part
of the family and except the fact that is what we complaining about everything. it and has expired expertise and he was a fabulous naturalist and on these trips they would learn things from him. besides that, he became part of their image. there were vaudeville jokes about people men, you claim you are henry ford, you claim you are thomas edison, you claim you are harvey firestone, the guy with the white beard is santa claus. burroughs was part of the group and there were plenty of words which were a lot of fun to read about these days. susan: you go through the vagabonds' trip and in 1916 you mentioned that henry ford was contemplating his first possible run for the presidency. talk about his politics. where would you put them today
on the liberal and conservative scale? jeff: if henry ford were alive today and active in politics, he would be on fox and friends every other week. he would certainly support the most conservative political spokespeople. he would believe greatly in conspiracies and would buy into that. that the government basically exists to dupe the taxpayer and take advantage of people. oddly enough, he would not consider himself a racist or anything else. he would think he was just a good common sense man who was brave enough to say what he thought. but let's please remember, his whole political philosophy was fine, if i am president, i am going to throw a wrench in it. he had no programs to offer that might change things in any way. he was appealing in the broadest sense to other people who were as alienated as he was.
susan: did he align with one party or the other? jeff: he did not align because he felt he was above that. when he ran for the senate, which was his only official race getting his name on the ballot, in michigan, he ran on both the democratic and republican tickets. he happened to win on a the democratic ticket. he was nipped on the republican ticket by a former businessman and administration official who was very much against the five dollar workday and socialism. a republican, and was very right wing republican. he was a pacifist, but i think we will remember certain elected officials today who were against america getting involved in the middle east and in iraq. that is ridiculous, we cannot do that. you get into office and you think differently. if henry ford had been elected president, the chaos he promised would have ensued.
susan: would you talk about how he promoted his antiwar views? in the years leading up to america's decision to enter world war i. jeff: he was very outspoken and prior to america getting involved in world war i, preparedness was a popular word. that we have to be ready in case we have to go to work. thomas edison very much supported preparedness. ford said he would spend 1 million dollars if he had to to keep america out of wars. that america did not want it. the business people needed it for their products, the politicians wanted it. in 1915, he decided that he would rent a steamship, and he would invite on the steamship all the best minds in america or political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, get on the peace ship, as it was called, and go over to scandinavia, a neutral country.
there they would invite the heads of the powers in europe to come together and would convince them that fighting is not the way to resolve your problems. we will talk through it. the peace ship got a lot of publicity. much of it on the eastern seaboard newspapers mocking ford, which he did not like. what he could not believe was that americans thought it was a terrible idea. edison turned him down. burroughs turned him down. he had to arm his ship with a lot of people who did not have much heft. in terms of being able to make things happen but have the expressed opinions. the peace ship is a disaster. by the second day, the reporters who were writing about all of the chaos and confusion, ford says he has a cold, and and
closes himself in his state room and as soon as the peace ship lands on the other side of the atlantic, ford heads home, claiming illness. it was an embarrassing thing for henry ford, but he finally decided it was worth the half million dollars it cost him because he got people talking about the senselessness of war. i will say this. he put his money where his mouth was and his mouth was everywhere. susan: you write that once america decided to get into the war, that in fact he was all in. he turned his factories into war production. how did he square that intellectually? or was it an economic decision? jeff: he was a patriotic american. he did love this country. once we were in the war, he decided that the only thing to do was to try to support your country as best you could. but he promised that he would not profit a cent. whenever the war was over they would figure out how much the united states government spent
four materials, calculate what his profit had been from that, and return the money. when the war was over, someone from the u.s. treasury figured it out for him. he had made $900,000 profit. he never gave that back to the government. somehow that never came to light in any way that would have been a public scandal, but i think that was ford's way of saying, you know what? you screwed up, i made some money, ok. susan: you referenced earlier about how he was angry about fake news coverage of him. one of his ways to combat this was the purchase of the dearborn independent. will you tell me that story? jeff: the dearborn independent was a very nondescript weekly
newspaper in ford's hometown. ford, of course, fake news, did not like the press. he wanted his own newspaper and so he purchased it for very little money and let's face it, who wanted to own the dearborn independent except henry ford? but he tried to turn it into a tool for his own political views. he sunk a lot of money into it. he had a column called mr. ford's views, it was ghostwritten, but working-class americans are going to assume henry ford wrote it. the problem is the paper did not become a rival of the new york times and the chicago tribune, all the big newspapers. most of the people who had it got it because subscriptions were built into the price of a model t. ford basically made it clear to the people who were getting good salaries to work for the independent, what are you going to do to make sure people read this? one of them said sensationalism.
let's have some sensationalism. so what was there? ford bought into legends that the jews were trying to take over the world economy and everything else. for 91 straight weeks, his newspaper, the dearborn independent, ran supposed exposes. susan: we have an example of one of those we can put on screen. for 91 weeks the dearborn independent had major headlines exposing what he saw as the -- jeff: the international jew. susan: how did people react to this? did his own editorial staff continue to support? jeff: there were a few people working on staff who quit, but it was simply understood this is what mr. ford wants us writing about. if you stay, you accept that. and they did. they kept doing it. executives at the ford motor co. tried to convince him, you have made a terrible mistake if only
because jewish people buy cars and could boycott the model t. ford's response was if it is a good enough product, people will buy it, no matter what. he only ordered the independent to stop running these weekly articles was when he was preparing himself to run for president in 1924. and he calls them off. he ends up not running for president. the articles start again and he only eventually stops when a lawsuit is brought against him. he not only loses money, but has to publicly apologize. his apology as he had no idea these things were being written. that simply was not true. susan: when he was considering running for president, there was an incumbent republican president. he managed to convince harding to visit the vagabonds on one of their trips. we have some film from that
experience. tell me the story of how the president came, why he stayed, and what the reaction was. jeff: in 1920, warren g. harding had yet to accomplish anything in office. historians will say that he was elected president because he looked like one. he ran on a platform of america first, we will only think of america. that is true patriotism. he was invited, he and his wife, to join the vagabonds for a week or more out on the road at a camp in maryland. harding came but outfoxed the vagabonds. they expected they were going to have a lot of time to talk to him about their concerns. edison wanted to talk to him about american rubber production. ford wanted to purchase muscle shoals, some government owned property in alabama. ford never had a chance. harding, who understood the
newspaper business better than anyone, had all the proceedings, stayed the afternoon, had the headlines, and the vagabonds were left going, what hit us? the vagabonds said, hey wait a minute, he does not seem that smart. ford thought he saw an opening and scandals against the harding administration started to break in 1922 in 1923. and so henry ford pretty much positioned himself to go for the republican nomination against an incumbent president, again with his strength in middle america with the scandals of harding. harding, once again, doing something inconvenient for henry ford, died. susan: we had a new president, calvin coolidge, which put to bed his thoughts of running for
the presidency. jeff: ford still considered running against coolidge. but a couple of things happened. the first was misses ford, clara ford did not want her husband to run and he listens to her. the second thing was he really wanted muscle shoals in alabama. he wanted it for the hydroelectric power he could bring to the farmers in that part of america, and he said he was doing this altruistically. it is also true the government spent almost $80 million building the facility and he offered $5 million to purchase it. plus a lease of $1 million per year. if he ran for president and was voted in, that would be a
conflict of interest. he could not do it anymore. so it seems based on available evidence that he cut a deal with coolidge. he would support coolidge and coolidge in turn would not speak against the muscle shoals purchase by henry ford. ford was not politically sophisticated enough to notice the language there. he would come out and endorse coolidge. coolidge would not oppose selling muscle shoals to henry ford. any politician who had any experience would have told ford, wait a minute. think about it. susan: the vagabonds made their way to vermont. what was that trip all about? jeff: it was just an amazing thing. they would go on their trip to visit coolidge in his summer home. they would endorse him. ford very much expected that coolidge would speak out in favor of the muscle shoals sale to henry ford. to ford and to edison and to a lesser extent firestone, burroughs had passed away by this point, they would get together and tell stories and the vagabonds would stay
overnight. to coolidge, it was taking an hour out of his schedule to get the endorsement of some prominent people. and the vagabonds were shocked that mr. and mrs. coolidge started saying goodbye and they were escorted out. it was just a shock to them. they had no idea. once again, they had been outmaneuvered by the president. susan: we have five minutes left in our conversation. how did the vagabond trips end? jeff: when burroughs died, part of the joy went out because now you do not have someone to go out there and teach you about nature. 1923 was a disappointment because harding got the headlines. 1922, there was no trip. 1923 was supposedly to launch ford's presidential campaign and instead it was him saying he was not going to run, he would
support coolidge. 1924, they're nipped in the bud by coolidge, so to speak. and then they said, ok, there is too much attention. we will not go anymore. but it was different -- they stopped because they were not going to get daily attention anymore. there are 20 million cars in america. an estimated 2 million americans every summer go out on trips. radio is coming into view. suddenly there are so many more american heroes in sports. the movies are bringing us cinematic idols to worship. there are lots of other famous people for the newspaper to write about. they were not going to get the attention anymore, so the trips dwindled out. a couple of years later when ford tried to revive them, edison did not want to go anymore. susan: you went on the vagabonds trips.
how many years it take you? jeff: about two and a half. susan: how many miles did you travel? jeff: i put about 32,000 miles on the car. i tried to go on the roads they used where they existed. where they did not exist, i would use whatever roads were closest to them. i got most of my material from small county historical societies that still had eyewitness accounts of what happened when these famous folks appeared. plus, the ford museum in dearborn and the edison research park in new jersey, wonderfully helpful. anyone who is interested in the book or these trips, you can go yourself. it is fascinating. susan: in the end, after having worked on this book and told us this story, what do you think the lessons are? is it a capsule piece of american history or are there lessons for today that we can take away?
jeff: the thing it will remind us over and over is history is cyclical. it is true if we don't learn from it, we repeat it. the exact political situation we have today is reflecting in henry ford. his presidential ambitions and the things he wanted to do. immigration was a huge touching point politically in america at the time. do we want these mexicans and these latins coming into this country? what should we do if we don't want them? there was a wall built on the u.s.-mexican border at the time. people forget to mention that today. it did not work and it crumbled into ruins. you can still see part of it today if you wanted to. we have accusations of fake news
and the media being accused of deliberately being against someone in certain political philosophies. you read this book, you learn a lot about america than, but there is also a great deal about america now. susan: you have written most of your last books about characters looking at a period of time. what is first? the chicken or the egg, the idea of the time period or the personalities? do you have the next one in mind? jeff: i always try to find some american history year that i want to understand better and i want to find individuals on events that symbolize that. right now, i'm in the middle of researching the u.s.-mexican border. let's face it, it's being talked about all the time, and yet everything today has happened in the past, up to and including camps some have described as concentration camps and others have described as facilities that are treating everyone fairly. we have to start learning from the things that have happened. because there are lessons there. history is important. this book i am writing, i just hope people go, wait a minute. where is this happening today? susan: book number 32? jeff: when you cannot write good, write a lot. it has always been my philosophy.
susan: the name of the current book is "the vagabonds." thank you so much for telling some of its story to us. jeff: my pleasure, thank you. ♪ announcer: all q&a programming is available on our website and as a podcast. c-span.org. a next sunday on q&a, malcolm gladwell talks about his book, "talking to strangers," about how we make judgments about people we do not know. that is next sunday at 8 p.m. p.m. eastern on c-span. president trump, vice president pence, defense secretary mark esper, and other high-ranking officials are set to attend in memorial day wreath-laying ceremony at arlington national
10:00 a.m.arting at eastern on c-span. >> this week, watch live coverage of the launch of the spacex commercial crew test flight, marking the first launch of commercial spaceflight since 2011. wednesday, our live coverage of the spacex crew dragon launch on c-span2 with lift off astronauts. as nasa launched to the international space station. then a post-launch briefing with the nasa administrator at 6:00 p.m. eastern