Henry Ford, ‘The Vagabonds,’ and the Birthplace of the Charcoal Briquet
By Ken Zurski
In 1919, car-making giant Henry Ford had been eyeing a significant tract of land on the far western portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan known as Iron Mountain. Ford’s cousin, Minnie, to whom he was very close, lived there along with her husband E.G. Kingsford. Thanks to his wife’s family connections, Kingsford ran a successful timber business and owned several car dealerships in the area.
Kingsford, of course, is a name synonymous with charcoal briquets, but the backstory has just as much to do with Ford’s keen business sense.
At the time, Ford had begun wrestling control from his stockholders and purchasing raw materials to be used in making his vehicles. Anything to make his car making process more efficient, he implied. Kingsford had a beat on something Ford desperately sought. So Ford invited Kingsford to go camping with him. To talk business, he explained.
Ford had been making headlines across the country, not just for making cars, but for using one too. Ford went on road trips. The press dubbed it, “auto-camping,” because Ford along with his three close friends, who called themselves “the vagabonds” would travel by automobile during the day then set camps at night. Ford’s camping companions were no slouches. They included Harvey Firestone, the tire company founder; John Burroughs, the conservationist; and inventor Thomas Edison. Their journeys included a jaunt through the Florida Everglades and treks across mountainous regions in West Virginia and New England. Their first trip to the Adirondacks in 1918 was so satisfying they all agreed to make a trip to a new destination every year.
The trips were well-organized, well-stocked and oftentimes well-staffed with cooks and a cleaning crew. Like true campers, though, the formidable men did sleep on folding cots in a ten-by ten canvas tent. Burroughs, in his 80’s and the oldest by age of the four (Ford was in his 50’s), chronicled most of the adventures. He marveled at their resiliency. “Mr Ford seizes an ax and swings it vigorously til there is enough wood for the campfire,” he wrote.
Each year newspapers ran features of “the vagabonds” latest adventure and newsreels of their exploits were shown in movie theaters throughout the country. After all these were prominent American inventors and role models to some like Edison and Ford, who despite their gray hair, and unabashed preference to wear business attire – tight collars, three piece suits and ties – even on the retreats, were “roughing it,” so to speak, in the great outdoors. The papers couldn’t hide the obvious irony of it all. “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains Off on Vacation,” the headlines blared. Even President Warren G. Harding joined the men briefly for one excursion.
Kingsford must have been pleased and a certainly flattered by Ford’s invitation to join “the vagabonds” in Green Island, New York, a popular fishing spot near Edison’s Machine Works company. Ford had a purpose. He needed land. Specifically, he needed land with timber on it. Nearly one-million board feet a day was used to manufacture the popular Model T’s, whose chassis were made mostly of wood.
Kingsford convinced Ford to buy some flat land near the Menominee River and build a wood distillation plant. Ford heeded his advice and went even further. He would build the plant and an electric dam nearby to power it. Ford hated to waste anything and in the wood distillation process there was always a lot of waste, specifically wood chip ash, or rough charcoal. So Ford had an idea. He mixed the crushed charcoal with a potato starch glue and pressed the blackened goo into a pillow-shaped briquette. When lit, it burned white ash and produced searing heat, but little or no flame.
Ford was not the first person to come up with the idea of charcoal in a briquet. That honor goes to a man named Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer from Philadelphia who patented the idea in 1897. Ford, however, was the first to commercially market it. He advertised the new product as “a fuel of a hundred uses” and perfect for “barbecues, picnics, hotels. restaurants, ships, clubs, homes, railroads, trucks, foundries, tinsmiths, meat smoking, and tobacco curing.” For home use, it was less dangerous than a traditional wood fire, but just as useful. “Briquette fire alone is enough to take the chill off a room,” the instructions informed. “Absence of sparks eliminates this menace to rugs, floors and clothing.”
Ford’s put his signature logo on the charcoal briquettes bags and sold them exclusively at his many car dealerships. When Ford died in 1947, the charcoal business was phased out. Henry Ford II took over and sold the chemical operation to local business men who changed the name to reflect its local heritage: Kingsford Chemical Company. By that time, Kingsford was not just a person, but a city. Thanks to the economical success of Ford’s wood, parts and charcoal plant, the land used to build the original timber business was named in honor of its first industrialist.
His story is rarely told. In short, Kingsford was born in Woodstock, Ontario and moved to Michigan as a young boy. He lived on his parents farm in Fremont before becoming a timber agent and moving to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. In 1892, Kingsford married Mary Francis “Minnie” Flaherty, Henry Ford’s cousin. Several years later, he signed a contract to become a Ford sales agent in Marquette and eventually moved to Iron Mountain where he bought tracks of land for timber and opened several Ford dealerships. When Ford called to discuss the possibility of using the massive timber resource for his car making, Kingsford answered.
Eventually, the once uncharted land, about five square miles total, was named Kingsford, Michigan.
Despite the distinction, however, Ford, not Kingsford, is prominently associated with the town’s history. Ford was responsible for putting up the large factory, employing hundreds of workers, and building modern houses for the workers and their families to live. Within just one year, in 1920, the population of Kingsford blossomed from a mere 40 residents to nearly 3,000, creating a town out of an enterprise, thanks to Henry Ford.
By the time Ford’s imprint left in 1950, the town of Kingsford was established enough to persevere, although the plant’s closing was a blow economically. After the parts plant it’s doors in the 1960’s, the charcoal business also left; moving operations to Louisville, Kentucky.
Ford’s name is still displayed on several establishments in town: Ford Airport, Ford Hospital and Ford Park are just a few examples. In a a publication honoring the city’s 75th Jubilee, Kingsford is refereed to as “The Town that Ford Built.”
Some might say that’s a slight to Kingsford, the man, who by association convinced Ford to venture out to the remote section of the Upper Peninsula, ultimately invest in some land, and put a city on the map. Today, you have to go to Kingsford, Michigan to get the full story. You’ll see. Ford still gets the credit.
But when it comes to charcoal, we all know whose name is on that big blue and white bag.