It was like winning the Sweepstakes, or maybe better – Luther Burbank was being asked if he would like to hang out with the most famous man in the world.
“We would appreciate it very much if you would consent to head a Committee to go to Sacramento, to greet Mr. Edison and escort him to San Francisco,” the letter read. “We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California.”
The odd wording might have caused Burbank to wonder if it was a prank, and a followup note would ask him to also meet with the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. But it was from the San Francisco Examiner, and closed with “…Of course, it is understood that you will be the guest of The Examiner’ in so far as all the expenses are concerned.” Oh, Luther, you lucky duck – it had been a long time since he had been offered something without being expected to make a “donation” in return.
Burbank accepted the offer immediately, writing back “Mr. Edison and myself have been long distance friends for some time,” which was a little white lie. While Burbank may well have mentioned the inventor at some point, there’s no record of any prior correspondence between them in either the Burbank or Edison archives.
It was October, 1915, near the end of what was otherwise a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for Burbank. Although it was not yet publicly known, both the Burbank seed company and Burbank Press were teetering on bankruptcy due to inept management, and after having exploited his name to peddle worthless stock to Sonoma County residents and others. His future was far from secure and it was possible he might have to sell his precious farms as well as the rights to every plant he still owned. If you don’t know that part of the Burbank story or need a refresher, see “THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK, PART III.”
Burbank was to escort Edison to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) – the world’s fair in San Francisco whose legacy can still be seen in the Palace of Fine Arts. He had a small role in the fair’s creation, having been among the hundred notable men who were part of a 1912 junket to Vancouver and back, promoting the upcoming event at all major cities along the way. (He was toasted at a banquet but told the audience he wasn’t much of a speaker unless the topic was about something like “spuds.”)
At the expo he had been honored with a designated “Luther Burbank Day” – although it wasn’t the spotlight some of his biographers have suggested. June 5 was also “Denmark Day” and “American Library Association Day.” Burbank received a commemorative plaque and a few speeches were made at a reception in the Horticultural Palace. So all in all, “Luther Burbank Day” was more like the “Luther Burbank Hour” and thousands of little flower seed packets were donated to the PPIE to give away to visitors.
The Examiner had no role in luring Edison to the expo, and hustling Burbank to Sacramento to intercept the train for the “wizard meets wizard” moment was the newspaper’s clever way of getting its nose into the tent. Hearst’s paper dominated coverage of Edison’s four days in San Francisco to the extent that Gentle Reader would be forgiven for believing they were behind the visit and all related events at the fair. They even printed Burbank’s letter agreeing to meet Edison’s train, which gave Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley a case of the vapors because the letterhead revealed Burbank lived in Santa Rosa. “Both this city and Sonoma county gets notice which is read probably by a quarter of a million people regarding location of wizard’s home,” he gushed.
Burbank must have cringed reading that; more than anything else he wanted to be left alone, but almost daily was already besieged by tourists seeking to meet the “wizard.”
The Chamber of Commerce and Finley were surprisingly insensitive to Burbank’s plight in the run-up to the PPIE. While the Burbank seed company was planning on advertising “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden” near Hayward specifically to attract fans there instead of making a trek to Santa Rosa, the PD was ready to exploit him as a tourist attraction: “many hundreds of strangers will come within our gates, lured here by the fact that Santa Rosa is the home and work place of the greatest of scientific horticulturists, Luther Burbank…”
Given Burbank’s desire to keep out of the limelight and people from tramping around in his experimental gardens, he sent a most unexpected telegram to the PD once Edison arrived:
San Francisco, Oct. 18. Herbert Slater. Santa Rosa: Mr. and Mrs. Edison and sister, and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford will visit Santa Rosa, if possible, on Friday. No bands; no racket. They wish to come quietly. Luther Burbank.”
The Chamber and Finley ignored their wishes, of course, and began planning a blowout reception.
Everybody wanted a piece of Thomas Edison, starting with the advertising department of his own company, General Electric.
At the start of 1915 GE announced that October 21 would be “Edison Day,” marking the 35th (or was it the 36th?) anniversary of electric lighting. It was really a nationwide ad campaign to get children under 18 to sell GE lightbulbs in order to get points towards winning prizes, and started in mid-September. Thus while Luther Burbank Day was over in a few blinks, Edison Day stretched on for over a month. Times were different back then.
Oddly, it seems they weren’t planning to include Edison in anything having to do with Edison Day. A few weeks before the date, a PPIE official visited and invited him to come to the Exposition for that day. He demurred, always reluctant to stray far from his laboratory but Mrs. Edison worked on him, and on Oct. 11 it was announced that he was going to California. The Examiner immediately fired off the invite to Burbank and the next day Henry Ford said he would come from Detroit and join Edison for the trip.1
When Edison arrived at the New Jersey train station he told reporters, “I feel like a prince,” and did a little dance. “I’m going to travel to San Francisco like a prima donna. My old friend Henry Ford sent this car for me. He will join us in Chicago.” Somewhere en route his wife bought him a new suit because he had gone to the station directly from his lab, still wearing his work clothes stained with chemicals.
It took four days for Edison’s train car to cross the country, although there may have been a bit of a layover in Chicago to hookup with Ford and get him some new threads. Once they arrived in San Francisco there was a whirlwind of banquets and fair activity.
The Examiner’s motion picture cameras cranked away and recorded Edison’s every step, sometimes capturing Burbank as well, as seen in the clip above. They seemed to be enjoying themselves (San Francisco Examiner headline: “Edison, Burbank and Ford ‘Josh’ Like Boys as They Cross the Bay Together”).
Besides the cameraman there was also an Examiner reporter chasing them around the fair. Alas, that person either couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying or didn’t understand English very well. What appeared in the newspaper had Burbank spouting idiotic dribble to Edison, such as “science is greater than any fairy tale,” and “you have made the impossible possible.” The reporter finally gave up trying and remarked, “the two scientists fell to discussing the ‘dawn of vitality.'” Then there was this snippet of conversation:
“A thousand years,” said Edison, “we have been trying to find out what water is.”
“And we know nothing of it, that is true,” said Burbank.
“Only roughly; nothing of its minutae,” said Edison.
“I begin to believe with Franklin,’ said Burbank, “that it is a fluid form of matter something like electricity.”
(Aside from making them sound like two stoners pondering Deep Things, the Examiner reporter likely garbled whatever Burbank really said about Benjamin Franklin’s analogy, which was that electrical current flows through conductive wire like a fluid.)
At the expo Edison used a telephone for the very first time (!) to speak to his chief engineer in West Orange, New Jersey, and then at the AT&T exhibit he spoke with his son, Charles, in Paris via radio. It was all very exciting and at night, every light in every building around the Bay was turned on in his honor.
The ceremony on the evening of Edison Day included a highlights reel projected by the Examiner from the stage in the Marina. A fireworks display followed (“half a ton of explosive had been touched off in salute to the man of the hour”) and a giant poster was unveiled of Edison holding a globe illuminated by lightbulbs, with “Thomas A. Edison 1879-1915” underneath. Its epitaph-like writing might have given the 68 year-old inventor pause, given there were still several weeks remaining in the year.
And then there was Henry Ford, and everybody wanted a piece of him, too. Well…not really, and that’s probably why he invited himself to tag along on the trip. Perhaps some of Edison’s good mojo would rub off on him.
Burbank was only at the expo for Edison’s first day, leaving the two famous entrepreneurs to roam the fairgrounds alone (but trailed by two Secret Service agents assigned to Edison). A young man introduced himself and asked for the secret to success. “Work,” said Ford. “Be sure the boss doesn’t fire you,” added Edison.
All the San Francisco papers had warm anecdotes about people wanting to shake Edison’s hand, but that’s the only story about Ford interacting with the public. Ford was deeply unpopular in October 1915 which he knew was dangerous to his business, savvy as he was about the importance of good publicity. The cause of his troubles? His outspoken view that America should remain neutral during WWI.
On the same day Ford announced he would be joining Edison in California, James Couzens, the General Manager and VP of Ford Motor Company, resigned because of Henry’s opposition to fighting the Germans. Couzens was particularly upset at Ford’s position against the U.S. giving a war loan to the Allied Powers, as well as being against a buildup of American military and naval forces in expectation that we would be drawn into the war. “His stand on these and other matters has disgusted me,” said his oldest friend and now former business partner. A few days earlier, the Dodge brothers had dumped $500k of Ford stock for the same reasons.
Ford had been pushing for a peace conference since the summer, boasting, “I can stop this war in Europe in two weeks” if he could only get diplomats to listen to him. Shortly after his Santa Rosa visit, Ford chartered an ocean liner as a “Peace Ship” to take him and an expedition of American peace activists to Europe. Ford tired of the squabbling over the various proposals and returned to the U.S. two weeks later, leaving the activists to argue amongst themselves in some of Europe’s finest hotels, with Ford picking up the tab. (Here’s quite a good article, “The Peculiar Case of Henry Ford” which explains more about this strange episode.)
The sincerity of Henry Ford’s pacifism was widely questioned at the time and has fallen under renewed skepticism as more has become known about Ford’s later personal and business dealings with Nazi Germany.2 Cynics point to self-serving remarks he made about the mission, such as, “If we had tried to break in cold into the European market after the War, it would have cost us $10,000,000. The Peace Ship cost one-twentieth of that and made Ford a household word all over the continent.”
Ford invited Burbank to join him on the Peace Ship, but he declined with a telegram that read only, “my heart is with you,” which could be interpreted in any of a number of ways.
Santa Rosa wanted a piece of Edison, and it wanted a piece of Ford, and it wanted a whopping big slice of the attention Burbank was getting for hosting them. On the morning of October 22. our ancestors opened the Press Democrat to read this:
This will be a day of days for Santa Rosa; Three of the world’s greatest men — one of whom, Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen and world man, Luther Burbank, has lived here for forty years — will be within the city’s gates. Mr. Burbank has already been mentioned. He is the lodestone, however, who attracts the others here today. The latter are Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most beneficial inventors the world has known, and Henry Ford, also known to fame as philanthropist, inventor and citizen. Santa Rosa is certainly most proudly honored by the visit of these distinguished men. Their coming is in the nature of national importance to Santa Rosa, as the papers of the country will tell millions of readers that Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford came to Santa Rosa, Sonoma county, California, to visit Luther Burbank this day.
The Edison and Ford parties were to arrive at 1:15 at the Railroad Square depot. Burbank and the Chamber of Commerce had sent ahead baskets of Burbank-bred fruits and nuts as well as other treats to be waiting for them on the train. (They were not using Ford’s transcontinental cars, but rather new NWP Pullmans.)
With only three days to prepare, some things slipped through the cracks. Sebastopol grammar school children were told only that morning that class was dismissed for the day and they were going to Santa Rosa to join children from the three grammar schools there in seeing the celebrities. A scramble ensued as kids phoned home to get permission and presumably some cash, as they had to pay their own fares for the electric train. In the end 107 from Sebastopol made the trip.
The train arrived to find thousands lining Fourth street from the train depot to the courthouse. Burbank and the Chamber president greeted them, as everyone piled into borrowed cars for a quick spin around town.
Arriving at Burbank’s home on Tupper street they found still more crowds as well as movie cameramen. The three of them posed and walked to and from the house several times. “Darn those movies,” quipped Edison, the motion picture innovator.
The party went inside and chatted for about an hour until the children arrived at 3. Only the youngest were allowed inside the gate – they were “Mr. Burbank’s pets,” Mrs. Edison told her husband.
The three men stood on the second floor veranda so everyone could see them. The children were “enthused greatly,” according to the Press Democrat, and began singing our (rather awful) state song. The nearly-deaf Edison couldn’t make out the words until his wife told him “They’re singing, ‘I Love You, California.'” He replied, “Are they? God bless them all.”
Burbank gave his guests a tour of the garden, showing off his new tomato and the cactus beds along with whatever else was still noteworthy that late in the year. Then there were more movies and photographs taken. “Everybody agreed they were mighty good to those picture folk,” snarked the PD.
They bravely waded into the huge crowd which had been gawking at them from the street, shaking hundreds of hands (“beginning to feel like a politician,” Ford said). Two inventors approached Ford. One was Thorsten Himle, pastor of the Scandinavian Lutheran church, who showed Ford his patent for an immersion suit with compartments that could be filled with gas for extra buoyancy. Healdsburg’s Ford Motor Co. agent gave him a drawing of a prototype tractor designed by Rush Hamilton of Geyserville. Ford pocketed the drawing. “May I take this along with me?” At the time Ford’s engineers were working on tractor prototypes, so it’s possible Ford received something of value. And Hamilton was no crackpot – he already had several patents, and in 1938 was awarded another for a unique tractor design.
By then the sun was getting low and it was time to leave. After another brief stop in the house they were back at the station for the 5:45 train. Altogether they had been in Santa Rosa for 4½ hours.
Although the visit was about as anticlimactic as it could be, the next morning the PD played it up like it had been the event of the century:
A great day has come and gone. Gone? No! For wherever the country is linked with telegraph, millions read last night and will read today of the gathering of three of the world’s greatest men, in Santa Rosa yesterday. Gone? No, again! Generations will remember the presence of the trio here yesterday. Fragrant memories will run throughout the years. Children’s children will listen to the stories of this memorable day.
Whatever “fragrant memories” children had of Burbank in 1915 are more likely related to the stink their parents made a few weeks later, after Luther Burbank sued the Luther Burbank Company and thereby revealed they had been sold junk stock, despite Burbank’s personal assurances the business was fundamentally sound.
There are two obl. Believe-it-or-Not! items connected with the event. The first is the presence of a ghost – rubber tire magnate Harvey Firestone. He came to California separate from the others, arriving just before Edison Day and signed Burbank’s guestbook; Firestone is seen in one of the group photos (he’s the short man on the front left, wearing a lighter-colored coat). Yet no newspaper mentioned he was one of Burbank’s visitors.
A few days later Edison, Ford and Firestone went to Los Angeles, and from there they took an overnight trip to San Diego, driving down the new state highway. The trio were close friends and had taken to calling themselves the “Vagabonds” for their glamping trips around the East Coast, joined with famed naturalist John Burroughs and sometimes celebrities such as Presidents Coolidge and Harding (great set of photos here). Numerous online sites claim Burbank sometimes participated but that’s absolutely not true. (There are even false claims that the entire California visit was one long Vagabond roadtrip, including the stopover in Santa Rosa.)
And while Edison’s trip to the PPIE received lots of national attention – all those big Edison Day ads had to make editors happy – the other surprise is that the visit to Burbank received very little notice outside of the Bay Area. While Finley promised “…papers of the country will tell millions of readers that Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford came to Santa Rosa,” few mentioned it. That was just Edison’s little day trip, after all, to a little town of little interest.
1 Ford and Edison had known each other since 1896 and were close friends, taking vacations and summer camping trips together (see “Vagabonds” above). Their bond formed because Ford credited Edison for wise legal advice on fighting auto engine patents, and when a massive 1914 fire destroyed Edison’s factory and offices, Ford gave him a $750k interest-free loan. This was in addition to a $1.15M advance that Ford had paid for nearly 100,000 Edison batteries that were to be used in an electric car that never made it into production.
2 Henry Ford, infamous for his virulent anti-Semitism, was praised by Hitler in Mein Kampf and the dictator kept a portrait of Ford in his office. Ford also was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938, the highest honor given by the Nazis to non-Germans. Ford personally intervened to cancel a contract his company had to build airplane engines for the RAF as it was fighting the Battle of Britain. Until the Nazis seized his German company Ford-Werke after the U.S. entered WWII, Henry Ford worked with the Third Reich by supplying raw materials and making military vehicles using slave labor. After that the Ford subsidiary in Vichy France continued providing new vehicles and parts to the Nazi war effort. Documents declassified in recent years show that the Justice Department was planning to prosecute Ford’s son Edsel – then president of the corporation – for collaborating with the enemy before his death by cancer in 1943. (MORE)
My Dear Mr. Burbank:
You are, perhaps, aware of the contemplated visit to the Exposition of Thomas A. Edison.
Besides the honor that will be shown him by the Exposition officials, the “Examiner” contemplates an additional celebration as a tribute to the man and his genius.
We would appreciate it very much if you would consent to head a Committee to go to Sacramento, to greet Mr. Edison and escort him to San Francisco. We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California.
Mr. Edison is expected to arrive on or about the 21st of October.
We hope you will see your way clear to join in the Welcome to him.
We have written Mr. Herbert Slater by this mail, and he will apprise you as to the exact date of Mr. Edison’s arrival and other details. Of course, it is understood that you will be the guest of “The Examiner” in so far as all the expenses are concerned.
Hoping for a favorable reply, beg to remain,
Very sincerely yours,
October 13, 1915
Your esteemed letter of October 11 just received and I could not appreciate any honor greater than that of meeting and greeting our beloved Thomas A. Edison at Sacramento as you propose.
Mr. Edison and myself have been long distance friends for some time and as I believe that he has shed more light on the Earth and expedited business, and made home life more comfortable than any other man who has ever trod this Earth Planet, you may be sure that the honor and pleasure of meeting him will be to me one of the pleasantest events of my life.
I judge that Senator Slater has informed you of my pleasure in meeting this great man on this occasion.
BURBANK LETTER HEAD FURNISHES BIG BOOST FOR HIS HOME TOWN
Both This City and Sonoma County Gets Notice Which Is Read Probably by a Quarter of a Million People Regarding Location of “Wizard’s” Home
“LUTHER BURBANK Santa Rosa. Cal., U. S. A.”
This announcement in the top corner of a letterhead used by Luther Burbank, a facsimile of which appeared with his letter of acceptance to meet Thomas A. Edison. and was published in the Examiner on Sunday morning, was incidentally one of the best bits of advertising Santa Rosa and Sonoma county has ever had.
Mr. Burbank’s letter was published on the front page of the news section and formed an attractive part of several pages devoted to a description of the big welcome that will be given Edison this week in the metropolis.
Several hundred people read that letter and they also read the location of Mr. Burbank’s home and in this way Santa Rosa got advertising, the importance of which cannot be gainsaid.
Used in connection with the Edison visit this simple notice on the Burbank letterhead is as important as a whole year’s work of promotion for this city and county.
– Press Democrat, October 19 1915