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High-Kicking Around the Campfire

camping in nh

In 1919, a jovial group of eight men gathered and decided upon a camping trip to begin in Albany, NY and then into New Hampshire. When the unlikely group set off, few probably imagined that among the party were three titans of American industry: Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone; and a celebrated naturalist, John Burroughs.

Camping under the stars at this year’s SoulFest at Gunstock Mountain. Photo courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography.
Camping under the stars at this year’s SoulFest at Gunstock Mountain. Photo courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography.

By the year 1919, Thomas Edison was already one of the most famous men in America and had acquired over 1,000 patents. He also owned the Detroit Edison Company, which had employed a young Henry Ford. Now fifty-six, Ford had transformed the world of transport by pioneering the automobile assembly line, which made cars affordable. Harvey Firestone had been one of the first to develop non-skid, low-pressure, and truck tires. His was among the largest companies in the US and he supplied most of the tires for Ford’s cars. Though eighty-two at the time the party set out, John Burroughs was still enthusiastically seeking out wildlife for study and observation. He was a seasoned camper, having done so on many occasions with company such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir (Rogers, It Happened in New Hampshire).

New Hampshire’s roads in 1919 were but rough narrow paths and old Native American trails meandering through the woods and running from town to town. On these bumpy roads proceeded one of the most intriguing camping parades of the automobile age. The group consisted of an Edison Simplex, two Packard sedans, a Cadillac truck for gear, and a specially designed Ford truck serving as traveling kitchen, complete with Henry Ford’s personal chef, Thomas Sato. Edison had made sure the kitchen truck included a generator, providing power for the cook and for lights in the tents as well. And what did these celebrated personages do for entertainment around the campsite? New England Historical Society records relate that Edison prompted campfire discussions about current events, politics, and philosophy; Ford initiated competitions in high-kicking, wood chopping, berry picking, and rifle shooting; and Burroughs taught bird calls and organized nature walks. Of course, historical pictures of these outings show the activities being carried out in gentlemen’s attire – three piece suits and neck ties (newenglandhistoricalsociety.com).

On August 10th, the group left their campsite in the Green Mountains and crossed into the northern region of NH. They passed through Crawford Notch and Conway before traveling west across the northern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee and then south through the Weirs and on to Tilton with the intent of setting up camp. Somewhere along the way, the Cadillac truck containing the tents and gear became separated from the group. By the time it caught up it was too late to set up camp, and so the party checked into the best hotel in Tilton, the Ideal Hotel (Rogers). Though the history could not be verified, pictures of the Ideal Hotel suggest it may have been the predecessor to the Tilton Inn, which still operates on Main Street.

The story has it that after dinner, the men settled on the building’s wide porch to take in the evening breeze. The presence of famous men in the small town drew a crowd and also supplied the local Salvation Army with an unexpected opening to collect donations. Those gathered asked the men to say a few words. As Burroughs and Ford addressed the crowd, members of the Salvation Army weaved among them with their tambourines in hand. Suddenly Edison jumped off the porch, snatched a tambourine, and began to move through the crowd, encouraging people to donate. It seems his enthusiasm was irresistible and resulted in a substantial collection for the Salvation Army that night (Rogers).

The next day, the merry party motored on to Webster Lake before heading south towards Keene. After a brief stop at the Cheshire House, acclaimed for its fine dining, they continued south towards Springfield, MA. And thus the camping party passed through New Hampshire without actually having set up camp in the Granite State.

Even though Edison, Ford, and the others never actually pitched their tents on New Hampshire soil on this particular trip, over the years hundreds of thousands have enjoyed the sport in New Hampshire’s long history of recreational camping. The Lakes Region continues to be one of the most popular camping spots. There are many from which to choose. Gunstock Mountain has 270 campsites on 140 acres and one of the longest zip line canopy tours in the US (gunstock.com). The majestic Kona Wildlife Preserve surrounds Bear’s Pine Wood Campground, located in Moultonborough (bearspinewoodcampground.com). Wolfeboro Campground is in the midst of “the Oldest Summer Resort in America” (wolfeborocampground.com). Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Campground in Ashland has many special events, such as the upcoming Chocolate Lovers Week (abcamping.com/jellystonenh/). Hackmatack, Pine Hollow, and Paugus Bay Campgrounds are within the dynamic Weirs Beach area. These are just a few. For more information on these and other campgrounds, visit lakesregion.org/stay/camping-rving/.

While camping in the Lakes Region, there is plenty to do. After finishing your philosophy discussion, bird calling, and high-kicking competition around the campfire, you can enjoy everything from a game of miniature golf to world-class musical entertainment. And rest easy. On your camping adventure you need not be concerned if you become separated from your chow wagon. The Lakes Region continues to provide a vast array of fine dining that would even satisfy Edison, Ford, and the others on that famous trip back in 1919.

This post was written by Mary O’Neill.

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