Deep in the Brazilian rain forest lie the ruins of Henry Ford’s failed utopia.
When I hear “Henry Ford,” I think of the Model T, the brisk efficiency of the assembly line, and the $5 day. Practical man, right? Not completely. Henry Ford also bought a plot of Brazilian land the size of Connecticut and tried to create an American-style factory town that was more perfect than actual American factory towns.
Even industrial success stories like the River Rouge factory town had their pesky problems in Henry Ford’s eyes — the threat of unions and afterwork alcoholic beverages, for example. Plus, Ford thought he was paying way too much for the rubber in his tires, so he had the bright idea to grow his own.
Motel T: Great idea. Fordlandia: Ehhhhh …In the 1920s, Henry Ford began to build his dream town, and in a way, it stayed a pipe dream for him because he never actually went there. Fordlandia never quite worked out as Henry Ford planned, and you can read all about it in Greg Grandin’s history of the town.
Tip: Check out the page for Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Ford’s Forgotten American Jungle City on Amazon for some cool photos of the town in the old days. My favorite is the spiffy Lincoln Zephyr mired in the Brazilian mud.
Batman vs. Poison Ivy
The story of Fordlandia is partly about the struggle between Technology and Nature — and we all know what happens to Batman’s nifty gadgets when Poison Ivy’s plants take over. Sometimes Nature wins.
Henry Ford didn’t listen when people told him rubber trees grow best scattered around the jungle. Why not just neatly arrange them into one big, green assembly line? So he planted them in neat, crowded rows and the trees got sick quick. No Fordlandia rubber ever made it into a Ford tire.
Henry Ford wasn’t a free-to-be-you-and-me type. When asked about colors for the Model T, he once famously said that consumers could choose any color they liked … as long as it was black. His disregard for personal choice backfired in Fordlandia.
He built American-style bungalows for his Brazilian workers, complete with white picket fences. He fed them hamburgers in the company cafeteria, which they hated. And he banned alcohol in the town, so they built an alternate town 5 miles up the river that had bars. Workers revolted in the 1930s, and American managers had to flee until the Brazilian army calmed things down for them.
It was an uphill battle, and hardly worth it by 1945, when synthetic rubber nixed Ford’s need for a rubber plantation. That’s when his grandson, Henry Ford II, sold Fordlandia and the huge parcel of land around it — for a $20 million loss.
You can still see the ruins of Ford’s factory town today, though Fordlandia is so remote that a day on a riverboat is still the only way to get there, Grandin writes. And you can meet, as Grandin did, the now-grown children of the indigenous workers who never quite bought into Ford’s American dream.