Famous Travelers: Edison, Ford, Firestone

The Vagabonds Continue Two Week Camping Trip in Western Maryland

By Francis Champ Zumbrun

“Every man in his heart revolts at civilization and will revert back to [nature] if given half a chance…We don’t live long enough to find out what life is all about, but we know what civilization is - it is a mere veneer that keeps on getting thicker, but never too thick to pierce…It will be 15,000 years I think, before man will reach such a high point of civilization where he cannot and will not want to go back to [reconnect with nature].” - Thomas Edison at Muddy Creek Falls, Maryland. July 1921

Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles covering a time in the summer of 1921, when Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone camped for two weeks in western Maryland. This article finds the Vagabonds, a term the wealthy captains of industry called themselves when camping together, at “Camp Harding” along Licking Creek, about 6 miles east of Hancock, in Washington County, where they stayed from July 21 to July 27. From here they traveled to present day Swallow Falls State Park where they camped from July 27 to July 31.

After the outdoor memorial service for their friend, John Burroughs at Licking Creek on July 24, a luncheon was served. President Harding thanked everyone and assured them that he had a splendid time. At about 4:00 in the afternoon, after spending a little more than twenty-four hours with the Vagabonds, President Harding and his large entourage of security guards and photographers returned to the White House.

The Vagabonds enjoyed the campsite so much, that they decided to stay a few more days after the President left. They fished at the conjunction of Licking Creek and the Potomac River and studied the canal boats hauling coal on the C&O Canal. The industrialists concluded the river’s water power was not properly harnessed; if it was, they believed that the C&O Canal would not be needed.

“Houses could be heated and lighted and factories operated on cheap water power,” Ford told a newspaper reporter.

Photo of Swallow Falls AreaOn July 27, after a week long stay along Licking Creek, the vagabonds broke camp. Their camp site is now a Washington County park, Camp Harding, named in honor of the President who camped there. In 1921, the site was still the farm of Emmert and Mary Mason. Not long after he departed, Henry Ford showed his gratitude for allowing the vagabonds to camp on their property by sending the Masons a brand new Model T Ford as a gift.

The Vagabonds' camping trip in western Maryland was not finished. They had accepted an invitation to camp along Muddy Creek, in Garrett County next to a spectacular waterfall, a true wonder-work of nature. The invitation is said to have come from Fred W. Besley, Maryland’s first State Forester.

The distance from Licking Creek to Muddy Creek was about 90 miles. They traveled west on Route 40 through Allegany County, past Green Ridge Mountain, through the ridge and valley province, and onward, to the Allegheny plateau, and finally, Garret County. At Keysers Ridge, they turned south on present day Route 219 toward Oakland, Maryland, retracing the same route they took in 1918 traveling from between campsites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

On their 1921 camping expedition, they turned south at Oakland, Maryland, and enjoyed a late lunch along a creek at Deer Park, Maryland. From there they traveled on unimproved roads about nine miles and set up their campsite at present day Swallow Falls State Park.

In 1921, this 600-acre tract of land was privately owned by the Grand Masonic Lodge of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, who used it as a retreat center. The Vagabonds camped under an ancient old-growth stand of Eastern hemlock and white pine next to the magnificent Muddy Creek Falls - at 53 feet the highest natural waterfall in Maryland.

Photo of Swallow Falls AreaBesley knew that the the Vagabonds' visit to Muddy Creek, with the positive press that was sure to follow, would capture the attention of the public. That attention would encourage the public to support Besley’s efforts to promote forest conservation and outdoor recreation in Maryland.

In 1923, two years after the Vagabonds' visit, Besley, through the State Board of Forestry, entered into a lease agreement with the Masonic lodge. Offutt Johnson, a retired DNR employee, and an avid Maryland State Park and forestry historian, shared this valuable historic information about the beginnings of Swallow Falls State Park.

“In 1923, The State Board of Forestry and the Grand Lodge of the Masons entered into an arrangement, that in exchange of the Masons allowing public use of the property, the state would manage and protect “the Falls of Muddy Creek “as an Auxiliary State Forest,” said Johnson. “The lease management agreement included a right of first refusal, should the lodge wish to sell or donate the property in the future. This agreement remained in effect until 1940, when the Lodge donated the tract to the State of Maryland, the Department of Forestry, two years before Besley retired in 1942.”

Public lands like Swallow Falls State Park and Green Ridge State Forest still serve as retreats where the public can come to relax, renew, and revitalize themselves in natural surroundings.

Vagabond John Burroughs perhaps expressed the joy people experience in Maryland’s parks and forests best when he said,

“To the woods and the fields or to the hills…there to breathe their beauty like the very air…to be not a spectator of, but a participator in it all.”

Swallow Falls as it must have appeared in 1921. Photos courtesy of Maryland State Archives.


Maryland State Forester Francis Champ Zumbrun, author, is the Manager of Green Ridge State Forest.

This is the fourth part of an occasional series about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone’s travels to Western Maryland, originally published in the Cumberland Times News.

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