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


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.

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