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