The rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city.

Fordlandia Mud
A Lincoln Zephyr stuck in Fordlandia mud. Courtesy of the Henry Ford Collection.

If you’ve never heard of Fordlandia, you’re not alone. Founded by Henry Ford in the late 1920s, Fordlandia was the auto magnate’s ill-conceived attempt to establish a sprawling rubber plantation in the Brazilian Amazon. Ford’s intention was to generate a stable, affordable supply of rubber for his American factories, but when he applied his system of mass production in the jungle, South American leaf blight and a diverse assortment of bugs, mites, flies and caterpillars laid waste to his rubber trees.

When it became clear that Fordlandia would never be commercially viable, Ford revised its mission and focused on bringing an idealized version of small-town America to the jungle. Yet, the indigenous workers didn’t appreciate his paternalism and openly rebelled against his midwestern Puritanism. By the time the settlement was abandoned by Americans in the mid-1940s, it was a stable and inviting place to live, but in light of expectations and the money invested, it has to be considered one of Ford’s greatest failures.

Until recently, Fordlandia remained a mere footnote to the Henry Ford story. But Greg Grandin’s “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City” (Metropolitan Books), promises to make its existence known to a wide audience. Following is an edited version of Failure’s interview with Grandin, who visited Fordlandia on two occasions during the course of his research.

What is Fordlandia?
Fordlandia was the name given to the plantation where Henry Ford attempted to cultivate rubber in Brazil. But it very quickly became a much more ambitious project, an attempt to create an American town and American way of life in the Amazon. Ford obtained the land [about 2.5 million acres] in 1927, and it was closed in 1945.

Where is Fordlandia and how does one get there?
It’s in the eastern part of the Amazon basin, about 600 miles from the Atlantic on a tributary called the Tapajós River. It takes 16 hours—by riverboat—to get there, about as long as it did when Ford first sent managers to establish the plantation.

Why have most Americans never heard of it?
Most of the references to it are in books about the Amazon. In terms of the scholarship on Henry Ford, it’s very rarely mentioned. I think that’s because there’s a lot to write about Ford and the Ford Motor Company, and to veer off onto this story—which deserves a lot of attention—would be too tangential. So [until now] there hasn’t been a book-length treatment.

However, there was a novel written about Fordlandia [“Fordlandia: Un Oscuro Paraiso”] by an Argentine novelist named Eduardo Sguiglia. I read somewhere that he set out to write a non-fiction account, but that the craziness of it all led him to fictionalize the story. I think this is one of those occasions where truth is stranger than fiction.

What made you want to write a book about Fordlandia?
One of the things that captivated my attention is that it’s such a clash of opposites. On the one hand you have Henry Ford, who reduced industrial production to its simplest component with the assembly line. On the other hand, you have the Amazon, which has some of the most diverse and complex ecology on the planet. One can imagine that the clash between these two would be very vivid.

Can you paint a picture of what it looked like?
The first couple of years were a disaster, plagued by waste, violence and vice. The managers knew little about jungle ecology, much less what it would take to establish a settlement. Early on it was a tropical boom town with casinos, bars and brothels out on the plantation’s periphery. There was quite a lot of chaos and incompetence.

Eventually the company managed to establish control over the project and erect something that approximated Henry Ford’s vision, and from the mid-1930s forward it was basically small-town America in the middle of the Amazon. There was a world class mill town and hundreds of worker bungalows, along with a 150-foot-high water tower, which was the largest man-made structure in the Amazon at the time. Set back [from the river] was the proper American town where the managers lived, which had a main street and sidewalks and three- and four-room houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Michigan.

What does the area look like today?
Brazilians still live in the worker bungalows, but the industrial plant has been abandoned. It looks a lot like the deserted Ford company towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—hulking husks of industrial buildings, broken windows, and the detritus of industrial Americana. There are even a few rusting Model Ts.

The American part of Fordlandia looks like a ghost town, with the jungle creeping back and taking over the houses. The residences are now home to colonies of bats, which have covered the walls and floors with guano. Finally, there’s an old hospital, which was designed by architect Albert Kahn, who conceived a number of Ford’s industrial buildings. The hospital is quite beautiful but also falling in on itself. 

What motivated Ford to create Fordlandia?
The economic rationale was to get control of rubber and latex. By the late 1920s, Ford’s River Rouge factory [in Dearborn, Michigan] had come online. It was the largest industrial plant to date—with 93 buildings, millions of square feet of factory floor space, and a hundred thousand workers. It had its own foundries, and trucks and trains brought silica, ore and coal to make glass, electricity and steel. The only thing Ford didn’t have control over was rubber, so it made sense that he would want to get control over it.

But actually he had a deeper motivation. Ford spent most of his life—and much of his great fortune—trying to contain the forces [of capitalism] he unleashed. He was dissatisfied with militarism and urbanization, and he didn’t like consumerism and cheap credit. And in the 1920s, he suffered one political defeat after another. One can think of Fordlandia as an attempt to export his vision of reform abroad, once he realized that he would be unable to do it at home.

Why wasn’t Ford able to produce rubber in Fordlandia?
Rubber is native to the Amazon, as are the caterpillars and fungi that feed off rubber. The best way to grow rubber there is with one or two or three trees per acre. If you put trees too close together that accelerates the reproduction of pests. But Ford being Ford—pioneer of mass production and regimentation—wanted the rubber trees close together, which effectively created a giant incubator for pests. Leaf blight and fungi and caterpillars laid waste to the first plantation, so he created another one about 90 miles downriver, and it failed as well.

Did inhabitants enjoy their time there?
Yes and no. During the early years, when Ford was trying to impose his regimentation on nearly every aspect of social life, there tended to be quite a bit of conflict and violence. There were a number of riots, including a huge riot on Christmas Eve 1930. But by the late 1930s and early 1940s it was a stable, functioning town. It just didn’t produce rubber [laughs]. It became a shining example of what the U.S. could achieve in the world—at least in form—even though it never became economically viable.

What were some of Ford’s more unusual demands of residents?
In some ways, Fordlandia mirrored other company towns that U.S. corporations set up in Latin America. But there were things very particular to Ford. By the mid-1920s he had become a bit of a cultural conservative. As part of this cultural conservatism he promoted square dancing, and had his Brazilian workers waltzing and doing polkas.

He was also a quasi vegetarian and tried to promote the consumption of brown rice and whole wheat bread and oatmeal, as well as other dietary habits that he thought were conducive to good health. He insisted that workers grow vegetable gardens in front of their houses and things like that.

What about Ford’s obsession with soybeans?
He was constantly trying to find industrial uses for agricultural products and markets for goods that came out of farming communities. He spent millions of dollars looking for ways to develop industrial uses for soybeans. He was also a big promoter of soybeans as food, including soy milk and soy cheese.

The irony is that Ford saw soy as being a wonder crop that would revive and rescue rural communities in the Amazon, but soybean production—which is low labor and highly mechanized—ended up wiping out one community after another.

Is it true that he developed a soybean car?
[Laughs]. He had a car built out of plastic that was largely made from soybeans. But they couldn’t get the formaldehyde smell out, and at the time, formaldehyde was needed to process the soybeans into plastic. From what I read, the smell was unbearable.

Typically, locals don’t have fond memories of departed multinationals. How is Fordlandia remembered by the natives?
Quite fondly. I think there is a certain kind of longing for a more humane version of industrialization in which companies care about what happens to their workers outside the factory gates. Although Ford was highly paternalistic, he did pay good wages and provide medical care. Considering what is available to most people in the Amazon, and considering the ruination in terms of logging and monoculture plantations, those fond memories are understandable.

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