Today's Reading

For any number of reasons—his outspoken pacifism prior to the recent world war, speculation about his prospects for the U.S. presidency in the upcoming 1924 election, constant print and photographic coverage that made his name and hawklike visage familiar, his widely perceived championing of the working class with high wages and shortened workdays, and, above all, for his modestly priced Model T that, for the first time, made car ownership possible even for people of limited means—Henry Ford had become perhaps the most famous man in America. He was certainly the most famous ever to show up unexpectedly in Paris, Michigan, and everyone in the crowd pushed forward to see him for themselves. Ford obligingly got out of his car. He offered no wave of greeting or any other theatrical gesture—he was deservedly renowned as a singularly undemonstrative man who in particular eschewed speeches. But with that exception Ford generally accepted the responsibilities of his celebrity—he'd worked diligently to cultivate it, realizing early on that his personal fame heightened demand for Model Ts—and so Ford stood in the dampness, nodding and smiling pleasantly, letting the crowd have a good look. The gawkers were only momentarily satiated. Then their excitement escalated, for if this was Henry Ford with an accompanying fleet of luxury cars, then it surely must mean...

Most summers for approximately the last decade, Henry Ford set out on auto trips that often extended two weeks or more, visiting remote towns and small communities, camping sometimes in parks and more frequently on private land, always asking permission first from owners and if required compensating them generously. On every trip, Ford was accompanied by friends—sometimes other business magnates or else government officials, high-ranking Ford staff members, once the now recently deceased president Warren G. Harding. His road companions always included two stalwart Ford pals, tire tycoon Harvey Firestone and much beloved inventor Thomas Edison, the only living American whose fame rivaled Ford's own. After a few such trips, the trio, together with a fourth friend, the late naturalist John Burroughs, fancifully dubbed themselves "the Vagabonds," and each year the announcement of their latest summer excursion sparked endless speculation about where they might venture next. A general region was always cited in advance, but not a specific route. They might pop up anywhere—speculation was rampant. In 1923, it was known that the Vagabonds would attend Harding's funeral in Ohio, then motor on into the Upper Midwest, possibly through Wisconsin and undoubtedly parts of Michigan. Town newspapers throughout the region were full of wishful speculation—wouldn't it be wonderful if they stopped here? Paris residents, who mostly read either the Battle Creek Enquirer or the more local Big Rapids Pioneer, would have held little hope that the celebrity troupe would motor their way. One of the Vagabonds' avowed goals on this summer's trip was to visit Ford lumber interests in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, most easily reached from Ohio by driving due north through eastern Wisconsin. Yet here was Henry Ford, rain dripping off the brim of his hat, and if Ford was present that must mean somewhere in one of those passenger cars sat Thomas Edison, and there he was, the great head topped by messily flopping silver hair making him easy to recognize as well. But Edison didn't get out; he was in the early stages of a nasty cold and the weather was too severe. Harvey Firestone, his last name far better known than his genial, generic face, was identified inside several of the cars, and always in error. Firestone and his family, traveling in yet another fine car, were many miles away because their driver had gotten lost. This happened frequently on the Vagabonds' summer trips. One car or another would take a wrong turn on a poorly marked road, and someone on the trip's support staff would eventually be tasked with tracking down the missing vehicle and guiding it back on route.

Meanwhile, here were Ford and Edison and (supposedly) Firestone in Paris, apparently making a brief stop to refuel, but then Henry Ford had a question for the crowd: Did anyone know the way to Jep Bisbee's house? They all did—everybody in Paris knew where everybody else lived—and Ford's inquiry further ratcheted up their sense of speculative wonder, for eighty-one-year-old Jep was the closest thing tiny Paris had to a hometown celebrity. For all of his lengthy adult life, Jep variously earned his daily bread as a store clerk, drugstore and grocery store manager, house painter, and farmer. In the most current edition of The Farm Journal Illustrated Directory of Mecosta County, an ad-saturated directory of who lived where locally, Jep was identified as a shoemaker. But his real talent, and true professional love, was playing his handmade fiddles at area dances and festivals. Jep had a family to support, so he couldn't fully embrace the itinerant, constantly hand-to-mouth career of a country musician, but Sarah Bisbee, his wife of forty-four years, and their now grown kids were good musicians, too, and quite often the entire Bisbee family performed onstage, fiddle and piano and second fiddle and clarinet and bass fiddle and sometimes even a bass drum. Set lists always featured old-fashioned favorites like "Turkey in the Straw" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me," the kind of tunes that set toes a-tapping and lent themselves perfectly to square dancing. All of which was fine for hardscrabble folks in Mecosta County, and in other neighboring parts of their sparsely populated region. By local standards, Jep's music career was a considerable success. But how could an important big-city man like Henry Ford have even heard of old Jep Bisbee?
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