BY MOLLY GROGAN RAWLS
August 29, 1918 began as just an ordinary day in Winston-Salem. A morning telephone call from Statesville to John Gilmer, vice-president of the Motor Company, reported that travelers nearing Mocksville needed a part for their car. Gilmer arranged to bring the car in for repairs. He alerted Norman Stockton, secretary of the Rotary Club, who quickly organized a luncheon for the travelers at Forsyth Country Club. Several local citizens drove to Mocksville to greet the visitors and bring them to the club.
And this is how Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone Junior and Senior, and R. V. Cline, made their unplanned visit to Winston-Salem.
The travelers had been on the road about ten days, starting their tour in Pittsburgh and spending the previous night in Asheville. They were living in the open, sleeping in tents, and viewing nature, people, forests, fields, and industry. Hagerstown, Maryland, was their final destination.
Mayor Robert W. Gorrell received the guests at the club. Colonel William A. Blair took the opportunity during the luncheon to praise the work of Slater Normal and Industrial School to Henry Ford. Impressed with the work of the school, Ford later announced his donation of a new Fordson farm tractor to Slater School.
Ford, Edison, and Firestone thanked their hosts for organizing the luncheon on such short notice. The men assembled outside of the club and R. V. Cline, the travelers’ photographer, snapped a group photo (shown above). The local men in the photo are James G. Hanes, Henry Dwire, B. S. Womble, A. H. Eller, Frank Dunklee, John Gilmer, Benjamin F. Huntley, Robert E. Lasater, P. H. Hanes, Ray Johnson, Powell Gilmer, Will Watkins, and Norman Stockton.
- Frank Morris invited Edison and Ford to visit the Huntley-Hill-Stockton furniture store on N. Trade Street. Edison noticed that his phonograph was carried in the music department. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to get many more of these,” Edison said. He explained that his New Jersey plant was devoted mainly to government work because of the war. He concluded his tour with words of praise for the store and the city. Store employees gathered around the famous guests as they graciously visited with local residents. Many marveled at their good fortune because the company picnic was the following day and they came close to missing these famous men.
Thomas Edison later stood outside the Motor Company on Main Street and spoke with the men and women who came by to greet him. Edison was well-known for his part in the design of our streetcar system and visited Winston-Salem in 1906 to gather minerals for his experiments. The reputation of this man who invented the phonograph, the telegraph, incandescent lamp and light systems, alkaline storage battery, and held hundreds of patents, was unequaled, for he made the quality of their daily lives better.
Norman Stockton took Henry Ford to see a tobacco auction at Brown’s Warehouse on N. Main Street. Ford also toured the factory where Camel cigarettes were made and requested a sample of loose Camel cigarette tobacco. Robert Lasater placed a sample in an envelope, and Ford and Edison were seen dividing this souvenir as their car left the city.
World War I was on the minds of Edison, Ford, and Firestone even while they were on vacation. Ford’s factories were being converted for government work to make U-boat chasers; automobile manufacturing would cease after the first of the year and tractors would be manufactured in reduced numbers.
The war was on the minds of local residents also because of the upcoming draft registration on September 12th. No one could foretell that the Armistice was only two months away and that some of the men recruited for military service would likely never leave Winston-Salem. Soon the entire country would celebrate the end of the war and the return of the soldiers.
Winston-Salem moved on to post-war life, but seasoned citizens talked for years about the day they shook hands with Thomas Edison or fixed Henry Ford’s car or served lunch to Harvey Firestone, or had some memory of where they were when an ordinary day became a red-letter day in Winston-Salem history.
Coming in October: “What’s in a Name? Our Schools.”