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