Century of Change: My Ford Behind the Scenes

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You might not have thought of Henry Ford and famed naturalist John Burroughs as likely close friends a century ago – much less as camping buddies who hung out with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone and dubbed themselves “the Vagabonds.” That fact would have surprised photographer Jonathan Kane as well, until he visited Woodchuck Lodge, one of Burroughs’ homes in the Catskills, and struck up a conversation with Diane Galusha, then president of the board of directors that care for the lodge.

“My wife and I have a home in the Catskills, and one day we drove by Woodchuck Lodge and saw the marker about the famous visitors to the home, including Ford and Edison,” says Jonathan, who, in talking with Galusha, learned that Ford and Burroughs had struck up such a devoted friendship that Ford gave Burroughs a brand-new vehicle.

A road-trip story that explored this unlikely friendship (and this unexpected and generous gift, about which Burroughs was said to be a bit embarrassed) was soon in the works for My Ford. Writer Seth Putnam test-drove the 2014 Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid from the din of Manhattan to the bucolic Catskills to join Jonathan and current Woodchuck Lodge board president Bill Birns at the home, which sits just down the road from John Burroughs Memorial Field, where the famed writer was buried in 1921 on his 84th birthday.

Continuing Influence

“I think John Burroughs magnified and amplified Henry Ford’s appreciation for all things in nature,” says Jonathan, who notes that Burroughs, Ford, Edison and Firestone took elaborate camping trips together. The trips eventually had to be nixed because they attracted so much public attention. “These two talented and driven American leaders from different fields admired each other. They both had a lot to offer the culture and mankind.”

It seems that Burroughs’ impact continues today in his beloved Hudson Valley. “You still see guys walking in the Catskills wearing ‘Burroughs-esque’ beards,” says Seth, referring to the extremely long facial hair for which the naturalist was known. Jonathan notes that the Hudson Valley is still “filled with forward-thinking people today, people who appreciate nature and who have concern for the environment and its gifts.”

Lasting Artifacts

Burroughs’ great-granddaughter, Joan Burroughs, was happy to introduce Seth and Jonathan to Slabsides, another of Burroughs’ homes located about 90 minutes from Woodchuck Lodge, and she showed off some of Burroughs’ prized possessions.

“We saw his writing table, pens and tablets,” says Jonathan, who adds that the author’s best-known book, Wake-Robin, and his sporty straw hat were assembled for a photo for My Ford, along with a manual for Ford cars from the period. Viewing the items “was like going back in time,” says Seth. “There were books and periodicals from those days. It was like nothing had changed – the people had just left.”

Seth’s favorite item was at Woodchuck Lodge. “Ford spent a lot of time there, and he once left a suit behind,” he says. Popping the suit into a box for quick shipment back to its owner hadn’t been an option at the time, so Burroughs got creative and used the suit’s fabric to re-cover the cushion on his rocking chair. “I think it was probably a matter of ‘waste not, want not,’” says Jonathan.

Seth got to touch the cushion fabric, causing him to wonder how anyone could bear to wear the suits made at the time. And you have to assume that Henry Ford could afford the better materials at the local haberdashery. “The fabric felt like a burlap sack,” he says. Automotive technology was marching into the new century, but menswear still needed a little help, apparently.

Into the Future

Of course, even Henry Ford himself couldn’t have fully envisioned the Ford vehicle models of today. The Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid “is a stunning vehicle to drive,” says Seth, who loved getting out of the city and carving the Catskills’ curves. Plugging in for charging was simple, he says. And using the available Active Park Assist* for the first time “was like something I imagined when I was a kid. It was fun to see the steering wheel spinning around while my hands were completely off it.”

The experience made Seth wonder just what Henry Ford may have dreamed about when he was a young man trying to imagine the world 100 years in the future. “Today we think ahead and wonder what will be here in a century,” says Seth. “I’m guessing he did too.”

*Driver assist features are supplemental and do not replace the driver’s judgment.

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