As a rubber baron, Henry Ford was no Firestone
By Wayne Curtis
June 1, 2009
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan Books, 416 pp., $27.50
The best true-life tales involve big ideas striving to find a home in a big place—think Lewis and Clark mapping the American West, John Franklin traversing the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, Thor Heyerdahl chasing a theory of Polynesian civilization across the Pacific in a balsa raft.
In 1927, Henry Ford had his own big idea: he wanted to build the largest rubber plantation in the world amid one of the last big places left, the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. His project would be called Fordlandia. It would be home to 25,000 workers and 100,000 residents. It would export some six million tons of rubber annually. And it would be achieved by following the same precepts that had already made Ford spectacularly wealthy.
The project made a certain amount of sense. Rubber was native to the Amazon, and for decades it yielded great wealth for a fortunate few; the 1896 Manaus opera house, among other follies, sprouted amid lush tropical foliage. Then an Englishman named Henry Wickham smuggled out a sack of seeds (an early instance of what’s now called biopiracy), whereupon it was discovered that rubber trees grew even better in Southeast Asia. In no time, Asian plantations flourished, pumping hundreds of thousands of tons of latex into global markets. They quickly overtook their progenitors in Brazil, and brought to a crashing halt the era of the South American rubber baron.
Ford sensed an opportunity—he figured that shifting geopolitics could suddenly hinder access to Asian resources. Plus, owning his own plantation would control costs and guarantee that he wouldn’t end up in the thrall of monopolists. He had already had some experience building model communities in remote surroundings on a smaller scale: he’d developed logging villages in frigid northern Michigan, in which he’d built and controlled schools, churches, and recreational facilities. He saw no reason that such an approach couldn’t be replicated in the sweltering Amazon.
When moving into the Amazon, Ford rejected the old ways of rubber harvesting—in which workers lived in far-flung villages and were paid by the pound for gathering latex. He would house his Brazilian workers in suburban communities like those found around his factories in southern Michigan and his lumber mills to the north; he’d provide them with a decent wage and teach them the virtues of thrift, self-reliance, good nutrition, and proper hygiene. Ford’s big idea, it turned out, was less about rubber and more about his own notion of Utopia, which involved a sort of industrial Arcadia, a land of villages with factories, where workers could earn a good wage producing industrial goods and also maintain their own gardens and farm animals. “With one foot in agriculture and the other in industry, America is safe,” Ford insisted. A United States diplomat at the time saw it in a larger context: “Mr. Ford considers the project as a ‘work of civilization.’”
Given the grandeur and sweep of his ambitions, it may come as no surprise that Ford’s vision did not unfold entirely as planned. Generally speaking, the best tales also tend to include a fish-out-of-water narrative element—someone trying to harness a difficult and unfamiliar environment, often with unfortunate results. Ford encountered a litany of difficulties: political, botanical, technological, sociological, managerial, economic, what have you. While none of these was insurmountable, combined they grew to throttle the enterprise like so many Amazonian vines. The project began construction in 1927. By 1945, it had been abandoned.
The slow strangling of Ford’s big idea is the subject of Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. It’s such an engrossing tale that one wonders why it has never been told before in book-length form—although Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic composer, produced an album inspired by it last year. Grandin, an associate professor of Latin American history at New York University and the author of The Blood of Guatemala, takes full command of a complicated narrative with numerous threads, and the story spills out in precisely the right tone—about midway between Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh.
In another context, Henry Ford said late in his life, “We learn from the past not only what to do but what not to do.” Grandin’s book could be viewed as one long footnote to that quote. Housing, for instance, was a disaster: rather than houses with traditional cool dirt floors and insulating thatch roofs, Fordlandia was composed of “Swiss cottages” and Cape Cod–style models that would not have been out of place in any inner-ring suburb in America. The roofs were of metal insulated with asbestos, which turned the homes into what one Ford employee later recalled as “galvanized iron bake ovens.” (Or as a Harper’s reporter put it: “Mr. Ford and Brazil are somewhat in disagreement in matters of doors, screening, and heights of ceiling.”)
Time is the essential element in the pacing of any good narrative; in Fordlandia, time gets an elevated role as a supporting actor. Ford was a clock guy; as a boy, he took apart and reassembled clocks, and a neighbor once said of him, “Every clock in the Ford home shuddered when it saw him coming.” He liked to hire engineers to run his company like, well, a clock. And Ford eagerly introduced the “tick-tock-tick-tock” he loved so well into the somnolent, syrupy, insect-buzzing atmosphere of the jungle.
After Fordlandia’s water tower went up, managers installed atop it a piercing whistle, which could be heard seven miles away. This signaled mealtimes and the start and end of workdays. Punch clocks were also used to monitor workers’ hours—even if this necessitated a trip to the main building and a long detour en route from home to the fields. Grandin notes that Ford’s Brazilian workers were more accustomed to another clock: the sun, which signaled when to rise, when to work, when to sleep. “Before the coming of Ford,” Grandin writes, “Tapajós workers lived time, they didn’t measure it.”
Ford’s fixation on the clock did not go over well among his workers—nor did his insistence that they assemble for meals in a sweltering, poorly designed communal dining hall, where they were served not their familiar local food, but oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and canned Michigan peaches. When, to shave costs, the plantation switched from meals served by waiters to long and unorganized cafeteria-style lines, workers at last rebelled, triggering the most dramatic event in Fordlandia’s short history: the riot of December 1930. (An Associated Press headline tagged it a “native uprising.”)
Plantation workers ransacked the dining hall, then spread out through the plantation, driving trucks into the river, smashing windows in buildings, wrecking the sawmill and radio station and just about every other structure on the plantation. They chased after the American managers, who were forced to flee into the jungle to hide out or to seek refuge aboard a boat moored in midstream. In particular, they turned their attention to the loathsome time clock, which was dutifully smashed.
Control was eventually regained, but by then Fordlandia’s day seemed to have passed. It no longer engaged the imagination as a nascent Utopia—it was more of a difficult management project, and quite possibly a fatally flawed one at that. Ford eventually realized he’d been duped by the original land agents (the thousands of acres he’d acquired in the end proved unsuitable for growing rubber), so he ordered up a whole new town to be built downriver, also with a city square, church, golf course, swimming pool, movie theater, and water tower. Called Belterra, it was, basically, Fordlandia 2.0, correcting some of the bugs in the earlier release but not nearly enough to ensure the plantation’s survival. It was sold to the Brazilian government for a trifle in 1945. “Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance,” Grandin writes, adding that “the arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.”
Fordlandia was, ultimately, the classic American parable of a failed Utopia, of soft dreams running aground on a hard world—which, now that I think about it, tends to make the most compelling tale of all.
Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.
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