Charcoal – Awesome Cooking, Amazing Flavor… but Who Knew there was a Backstory?

We grill over hunks for fiery goodness every time we get our charcoal grills going. In the grilling world we all know that there are two camps when it comes to charcoal. You have your charcoal briquette people on one side and then you have the lump charcoal folk on the other side. Feel free to drop in a visual of West Side Story and the Sharks and the Jets if you know your Broadway classics. There’s good reason to love grilling over charcoal! It’s awesome, and it provides great flavor to grilled foods. All thanks to Henry Ford… maybe.

When I was researching sidebar topics for my newest book Great American Grilling, I came across this neat topic. So, for this blog post we are veering off the normal recipe trail in search of a bit of grilling history. The focused is on formed charcoal briquettes. Don’t worry lump charcoal fans, we’ll touch on that topic down the road.

The ‘Father’ of Charcoal Debate

– Henry Ford Museum

We can thank  Henry Ford, founder of  Ford Motor Company, and his wife’s cousin E.G. Kingsford for inventing charcoal briquettes! Or can we? Well – sort of, at least that’s the popular lore when it comes to cooking over charcoal. The true story, which has been hidden in grilling smoke for decades, is that Ford, Kingsford, and a few other friends in their tight-knit group dubbed the “vagabonds” actually owe the idea of manufacturing charcoal briquettes to the original patent holder. Here’s how the story goes, kick back and enjoy while your charcoal BBQ Dragon does its magic!

Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer

Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania patented a charcoal briquette design years prior to Ford and Kingsford’s entry into the business. Back in 1897 Zwoyer patented his process of combining charcoal, wood, and other items into nicely formed, equal sized pices, with rounded corners. He also came up with modern machinery needed to complete the task. Zwoyer’s forward thinking and manufacturing design was well on the way to becoming a success! Zwoyer Fuel Company was born and the inventor eventually built plants in Buffalo, New York and Fall River, Massachusetts. All was going good for the entrepreneur until…

Ford, Kingsford, Edison, Burroughs, and Firestone

– Henry Ford Museum

That sub-title seems like the beginning of a joke, but for Zwoyer it was anything but. Henry Ford was famous for using as much of the waste material from his manufacturing processes as possible. Back then, wood was used in the production of his cars. Apparently during an outing of Ford and his friends the idea to get into the charcoal business was hatched. This group of friends included Ford, famed inventor and scientist Thomas Edison, tire and rubber magnate Henry Firestone, and world famous naturalist John Burroughs. The group, nick-named the “vagabonds” popularized car-camping and their rustic travels across the wild were often part of nationwide news stories and theater news reels.

Their trips were anything but rustic. The group traveled by a caravan of cars, included paid help, as well as hired chefs! As the story goes, during a trip north, Kingsford joined the group as Ford scouted for timberland to buy. By coincidence, Kingsford worked in real-estate and soon he had helped his cousins husband buy a massive amount of property which quickly grew into a sawmill facility which supplied wood to Ford’s plants. Somewhere along the way Ford, who is rumored to have been friends with Zwoyer, decided he wanted to turn his piles of scrap wood into money and making formed charcoal pieces was the route to go.

From Thomas Edison to your Grill!

Here’s where Thomas Edison comes into the grilling and outdoor cooking picture. Edison designed the new charcoal facility located near the sawmill and the town, named Kingsford Michigan, which was built to house workers. Kingsford, them man – not the town, ran the facilities which now produced the “briquets” under the banner Ford Charcoal. Ford used his name to popularize the cooking fuel with campers and even developed picnic kits that included small grills complete with his briquets that could easily be purchased at your local Ford dealership. The Ford brand grew while Zwoyer’s product was overwhelmed. Ford was known for his marketing skills, tight budgets, low waste, and mass production. Plus, Ford owned much of the raw materials needed to make his charcoal. He was making money off of what other considered garbage.

Zwoyer was the original patent holder and seemingly had a clear case of infringement, there’s no mention of any legal methods taken showing that he tried to fight back against Ford. Eventually his plants closed and Zwoyer’s contribution to the fine art of grilling faded into smokey mystery. As for Ford Charcoal? It was purchased and renamed “Kingsford” in the early 1960’s in honor of the man who helped Henry Ford find some prime real-estate. Today Kingsford® Charcoal still lives with Ford’s hate of waste in mind. The company uses more than one million tons of wood scraps every year in the production of their charcoal briquettes.

What’s the moral of the story? If your wife say’s she has a cousin that can help you and Thomas Edison with a project… you might want to listen! But we should all thank Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer. Now, get back to the grill as your BBQ Dragon probably has those pieces of charcoal ready to go!

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