You might call Henry Ford the original RV’er.
He didn’t just invent the first mass-marketed automobile, he was also an avid camper, who said that a main goal of his unusually affordable Model T was to enable the multitude to, “enjoy the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
You can thank Ford also for your evening barbecue, says Kari Price, manager of the Ford Center
in Alberta, Michigan. Ford mass-produced the first charcoal briquets, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one of many ways of reusing waste from the manufacturing process. “Every ton of sawdust,” she says, “netted 610 pounds of charcoal.” And Ford didn’t just let buyers figure out what to do with this unusual byproduct; he offered a picnic kit, complete with grill, with every purchase of a Model A.
Ford Trail-blazed the Outdoor Recreation Industry
Ford’s influence on the outdoor recreation industry doesn’t stop there. Some historians call Ford the inventor of the road trip, not only for the way he created the first affordable means of road tripping for the masses, but for the way he modeled the way he wanted the car to be used. He modelled it in style, packing with him an entire caravan of staff to set up dining tents, complete with a lazy susan and supplied by a kitchen-car dubbed a “Waldorf-Astoria on wheels.”
News crews closely chronicled the adventures of Ford and his group of so-called Vagabonds as they traveled throughout some of the country’s prettiest natural areas in the early 1920s; after all, Ford and camping buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, naturalist John Burroughs and sometime companions like President Warren G. Harding were the richest and most famous people of the day. Headlines about the trips shouted, “Genius to Sleep Under Stars,” and “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains Off on Vacation.” Reports from their Upper Peninsula trip had people lining up for autographs, and a lucky few getting the chance to dance with the industrialist and his wife, who were greeted like visiting royalty.
But regardless of the circus they created in their wake, they seemed genuine in their desire to enjoy nature, says Jo Wittler, who watched films of a 1923 camping trip through the Upper Peninsula while creating a Marquette museum exhibit on the connection. Photos showed an unusually playful side, as Ford would visit his holdings, help with problem solving, chop some wood. Edison was often found gazing at a stream, contemplating its electricity-producing potential.
Pioneer of Enjoying the Outdoors
“He wasn’t a perfect person,” Wittler said of Ford, “But I think he really pushed us as a society to enjoy the out of doors and get out of the city like he did.”
Ford didn’t just explore the Upper Peninsula for fun, however; at that time, he owned much of it. He was the largest landowner—and employer—as part of his strategy for controlling every piece of the production process. Most of the land has since been sold off, but you can still craft a road trip with the inventor of the road trip, with visits to some of his one-time homes (now lodges or inns with rooms for rent), a one-time time lumber mill (now a museum), a model lumbering community and even his one- time camping spots.
Munising to Negaunee
Let the map of Ford’s one-time Upper Peninsula plants guide the trip, heading across the Mackinac Bridge, west on U.S. 2, north on 77, then west on Highway 28 toward Munising.
Ford’s Munising sawmill along the shores of Lake Superior never actually operated as such since he bought it as the “Woody” went out of style and mill needs dropped dramatically. But a quick trip to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore by kayak or tour boat showcases the region’s appeal, even to Ford.
The Marquette Regional History Center has film footage of one of the camping trips. You’re also on the route to Negaunee, where the Iron Industry Museum talks about the importance of mines (Ford owned those too) to early car production—and much more.
Head up Highway 41, hugging the shores of Lake Superior, to the town of Big Bay for a cocktail with your fish fry or prime rib at the Thunder Bay Inn.
You can stay, too; Room 201 was Henry Ford’s room after he bought the mansion to entertain friends and colleagues and keep an eye on his business. Luckily for today’s visitors and their porch view, he had a rail depot moved when he saw it blocked his view of his plant and Lake Independence.
L’Anse, Alberta and Pequaming
Circle back and head west on Highway 8 until, on your right, you catch the name Ford painted on the grass alongside a particularly stunning lake. While camping here, Ford thought it so pretty he decided to build a logging mill and a model community for his workers.
Across the street, the Ford Center—now part of Michigan Technological University and its working forest—operates a mill museum open for tours; it also rents a few of the homes originally used by Ford’s workers. You can stay the weekend at the Ford Bungalow in L’Anse, where you can rent his former home for $980 per weekend for up to 16 people.
Explore Pequaming, too. There’s not much left of the plant but waterfront ruins, but Ford built even the schools here, notable for having some of the most modern lighting, best teachers and most innovative curriculum of the day, one that even included dance. Ford had his staff create a textbook of dance, and Clara Ford often looked for her partners among school kids who, according to local resident Ed Rock, could as easily have been dancing with the queen, the couple was so revered.
Head down Highway 95 to survey what was once Ford land, now a public kingdom, from the top of the Iron Mountain ski jump; an adventure ride chairlift takes you to the top for a 360-degree view.
The town’s World War II Glider and Military Museum is open and showcases its unexpected Ford connection. During the war, the Ford Kingsford plant built more Model CG-4A gliders for the Army than any other company in the nation.
Before Heading Home
Find the shoreline of Cowboy Lake and picture, if you can, the Vagabonds pitching their tents in the woods. One of the newspapers of the day describes the crew arriving to the spot north of the then-Ford plant in three Lincoln cars with two supply trucks and a white pantry car.
Ever doubt that camping brings out the fun in people? Snapshots show Ford and Kingsford in an uncharacteristically lighthearted pose wearing cowboy hats and scarves, holding six-shooters…
Make this trip your own with your home-base at Hearthside Grove in Petoskey Michigan, just one hour south of the Mackinac Bridge starting point. You will enjoy your time on the road even more knowing that you have a wonderful place to return to when you are finished exploring Ford’s epic adventure grounds.