The stunning, never before told story of the quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon
In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets.
Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash. On one side was the car magnate, lean, austere, the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions; on the other, the Amazon, lush, extravagant, the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford's early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers, rejecting his midwestern Puritanism, turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown. Fordlandia's eventual demise as a rubber plantation foreshadowed the practices that today are laying waste to the rain forest.
More than a parable of one man's arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural world, Fordlandia depicts a desperate quest to salvage the bygone America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch. As Greg Grandin shows in this gripping and mordantly observed history, Ford's great delusion was not that the Amazon could be tamed but that the forces of capitalism, once released, might yet be contained.
Starred Review. Gandin, an NYU professor of Latin American history, offers the thoroughly remarkable story of Henry Ford's attempt, from the 1920s through 1945, to transform part of Brazil's Amazon River basin into a rubber plantation and eponymous American-style company town: Fordlandia. Gandin has found a fascinating vehicle to illuminate the many contradictory parts of Henry Ford: the pacifist, the internationalist, the virulent anti-Semite, the $5-a-day friend of the workingman, the anti-union crusader, the man who ushered America into the industrial age yet rejected the social changes that followed urbanization. Both infuriating and fascinating, Ford is only a piece of the Fordlandia story. The follies of colonialism and the testing of the belief that the Amazon--where 7,882 organisms could be found on any given five square miles--could be made to produce rubber with the reliability of an auto assembly line makes a surprisingly dramatic tale. Although readers know that Fordlandia will return to the jungle, the unfolding of this unprecedented experiment is compelling. Grandin concludes that Fordlandia represents in crystalline form the utopianism that powered Fordism--and by extension Americanism. Readers may find it a cautionary tale for the 21st century. 54 b&w photos. (June)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Showing 1-1 of the 1 most recent reviews
1 . Reads like a novel
Posted August 02, 2010 by Francoism , ReginaWow, did you know that Henry Ford founded an American city in the middle of the Amazon? Did you know it costed him $8 million to build and his grandson sold it for $225,000 a few years later? Amazing stuff and a very interesting read. I had never read a historical novel before and I found myself lost in this too-crazy-to-be-true world.
June 07, 2009
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
NOTHING IS WRONG WITH ANYTHING
January 9, 1928: Henry Ford was in a spirited mood as he toured the Ford Industrial Exhibit with his son, Edsel, and his aging friend Thomas Edison, feigning fright at the flash of news cameras as a circle of police officers held back admirers and reporters. The event was held in New York, to showcase the new Model A. Until recently, nearly half of all the cars produced in the world were Model Ts, which Ford had been building since 1908. But by 1927 the T's market share had dropped considerably. A half decade of prosperity and cheap credit had increased demand for stylized, more luxurious cars. General Motors gave customers dozens of lacquer colors and a range of upholstery options to choose from while the Ford car came in green, red, blue, and black-- which at least was more variety than a few years earlier when Ford reportedly told his customers they could have their car in any color they wanted, "so long as it's black."1
From May 1927, when the Ford Motor Company stopped production on the T, to October, when the first Model A was assembled, many doubted that Ford could pull off the changeover. It was costing a fortune, estimated by one historian at $250 million, because the internal workings of the just- opened River Rouge factory, which had been designed to roll out Ts into the indefinite future, had to be refitted to make the A. Yet on the first two days of its debut, over ten million Americans visited their local Ford dealers to inspect the new car, available in a range of body types and colors including Arabian Sand, Rose Beige, and Andalusite Blue. Within a few months, the company had received over 700,000 orders for the A, and even Ford's detractors had to admit that he had staged a remarkable comeback.2
The New York exhibit was held in the old Fiftieth Street Madison Square Garden, drawing over a million people and eclipsing the nearby National Car Show. All the many styles of the new model were on display at the Garden, as was the Lincoln Touring Car, since Ford had bought Lincoln Motors six years earlier, giving him a foot in the luxury car market without having to reconfigure his own factories. But the Ford exhibit wasn't really an automobile show. It was rather "built around this one idea,"said Edsel: "a visual demonstration of the operation of the Ford industries, from the raw materials to the finished product."Visitors passed by displays of the manically synchronized work stations that Ford was famous for, demonstrations of how glass, upholstery, and leather trimmings were made, and dioramas of Ford's iron and coal mines, his blast furnaces, gas plants, northern Michigan timberlands, and fleets of planes and ships. A few even got to see Henry himself direct operations. "Speed that machine up a bit,"he said as he passed a "mobile model of two men leisurely sawing a tree, against a background of dense forest growth."3
Though he was known to have opinions on many matters, as Henry Ford made his way through the convention hall reporters asked him mostly about his cars and his money. "How much are you worth?"one shouted out. "I don't know and I don't give a damn,"Ford answered. Stopping to give an impromptu press conference in front of an old lathe he had used to make his first car, Ford said he was optimistic about the coming year, sure that his new River Rouge plant-- located in Ford's hometown of Dearborn, just outside of Detroit-- would be able to meet demand. No one raised his recent humiliating repudiation of anti- Semitism, though while in New York Ford met with members of the American Jewish Committee to stage the "final scene in the reconciliation between Henry Ford and American Jewry,"as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the conference. Most reporters tossed feel- good questions. One wanted to know about his key to success. "Concentration on details,"Ford said. "When I worked at that lathe in 1894"-- the carmaker nodded to the machine behind him--"I never thought about anything else."A journalist did ask him about reports of a price war and whether it would force him to lower his asking price for the A.
"I know nothing about it,"replied Ford, who for decades had set his own prices and wages free of serious competition. "Nothing is wrong with anything,"he said, "and I don't see any reason to believe that the present prosperity will not continue."4
Ford wanted to talk about something other than automobiles. The previous August he had taken his first airplane ride, a ten- minute circle over Detroit in his friend Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, just a few months after Lindbergh had made his historic nonstop transatlantic trip. Ford bragged that he "handled the stick"for a little while. He was "strong for air travel,"he said, and was working on a lightweight diesel airplane engine. Ford then announced that he would soon fly to the Amazon to inspect his new rubber plantation. "If I go to Brazil,"he said, "it will be by airplane. I would never spend 20 days making the trip by boat."5
Ford didn't elaborate, and reporters seemed a bit puzzled. So Edsel stepped forward to explain. The plantation was on the Tapajos River, a branch of the Amazon, he said.
Amid all the excitement over the Model A, most barely noted that the Ford Motor Company had recently acquired an enormous land concession in the Amazon. Inevitably compared in size to a midranged US state, usually Connecticut but sometimes Tennessee, the property was to be used to grow rubber. Despite Thomas Edison's best efforts to produce domestic or synthetic rubber, latex was the one important natural resource that Ford didn't control, even though his New York exhibit included a model of a rubber plantation. "The details have been closed,"Edsel had announced in the official press release about the acquisition, "and the work will begin at once."It would include building a town and launching a "widespread sanitary campaign against the dangers of the jungle,"he said. "Boats of the Ford fleet will be in communication with the property and it is possible that airplane communication may also be attempted."6
In the months that followed, as the excitement of the Model A died down, journalists and opinion makers began to pay attention to Fordlandia, as Ford's Brazilian project soon came to be called. And they reported the enterprise as a contest between two irrepressible forces. On one side stood the industrialist who had perfected the assembly line and broken down the manufacturing process into ever simpler components geared toward making one single infinitely reproducible product, the first indistinguishable from the millionth. "My effort is in the direction of simplicity,"Ford once said. On the other was the storied Amazon basin, spilling over into nine countries and comprising a full third of South America, a place so wild and diverse that the waters just around where Ford planned to establish his plantation contained more species of fish than all the rivers of Europe combined.7
It was billed as a proxy fight: Ford represented vigor, dynamism, and the rushing energy that defined American capitalism in the early twentieth century; the Amazon embodied primal stillness, an ancient world that had so far proved unconquerable. "If the machine, the tractor, can open a breach in the great green wall of the Amazon jungle, if Ford plants millions of rubber trees where there used to be nothing but jungle solitude,"wrote a German daily, "then the romantic history of rubber will have a new chapter. A new and titanic fight between nature and modern man is beginning."One Brazilian writer predicted that Ford would finally fulfill the prophecy of Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian naturalist who over a century earlier said that the Amazon was destined to become the "world's granary."And as if to underscore the danger of the challenge, just at the moment Ford was deciding to get into the rubber business, the public's attention was captivated by reports of the disappearance of the British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett. Having convinced himself, based on a combination of archival research, deduction, and clairvoyance, of the existence of a lost city (which he decided to name "Z") just south of where Ford would establish his plantation, Fawcett entered the jungle to find it. He was never heard from again.8
In the case of Ford, who had all the resources of the industrial world at his disposal, journalists had no doubt about the outcome, and they reported on his civilizing mission in expectant prose. Time reported that Ford intended to increase its rubber planting every year "until the whole jungle is industrialized,"cheered on by the forest's inhabitants: "soon boa constrictors will slip down into the jungle centers; monkeys will set up a great chattering. Black Indians armed with heavy blades will slash down their one- time haunts to make way for future windshield wipers, floor mats, balloon tires."Ford was bringing "white man's magic"to the wilderness, the Washington Post wrote, intending to cultivate not only "rubber but the rubber gatherers as well."9
Since the sixteenth century, stories of El Dorado, an Indian king so rich that he powdered himself with gold, lured countless fortune hunters on futile quests. The word quixotic has its origins in a story set on the Spanish plains, in the same century when Europeans were first entering the Amazon. It's often applied to those entranced by the promise of jungle riches, as certain of the existence of the object of their pursuit as the Man from La Mancha was that the windmills he tilted at were giants. "I call it Z,"said Col o nel Fawcett of his fabled city, "for the sake of convenience."10
Ford, though, turned the El Dorado myth inside out. The richest man in the world, he was the gilded one-- the "Jesus Christ of industry,"one Brazilian writer called him, while another called him a New World "Moses"-- and salvation of Brazil's long-moribund rubber industry and the Amazon itself was to come from his touch. The "Kingdom of Fordlandia,"however, was decidedly secular, and its magic technological. Ford's move into northern Brazil took place on the cusp of two eras, as the age of adventure gave way to the age of commerce.11
Their time passing, explorers acted as Ford's John the Baptists, walking through a fallen land and heralding its deliverance even as they faded from the scene. Theodore Roosevelt's Through the Brazilian Wilderness-- an account of the former president's last jungle expedition, taken in 1914, just a few years before his death, to survey a heretofore uncharted Amazon river-- predicted that the treacherous rapids that nearly cost him his life would eventually provide enough hydropower to support a "number of big manufacturing communities, knit by railroads to one another."Francis Gow Smith, a member of New York's Explorers Club, was in Brazil searching for Colonel Fawcett when news got out that Ford had secured his Brazilian concession. In a lengthy dispatch from the field, Smith described his near lethal encounter with the "King of the Xingu"-- a rich and ruthless rubber baron on the Xingu River who "typifies the feudal tyranny of plantation methods in Brazil just as his new competitor"Henry Ford "typifies North America's industrial enterprise."The "jungle millionaire"terrorized his "peons,"keeping them in a state of perpetual debt, locking those who dared to challenge his authority in stockades, beating them unmercifully, and leaving them to lie for hours on the ground as vampire bats "feast upon their blood and hordes of ants gnaw at their bare skins."Henry Ford "has never met his jungle rival,"Smith wrote, but his "Brazilian project will be the wiping out of the King of Xingu's rubber monopoly, the liberation of his peons and the dawn of a new day for Brazilian prosperity."12
The Amazon is a temptress: its chroniclers can't seem to resist invoking the jungle not as an ecological system but as a metaphysical testing ground, a place that seduces man to impose his will only to expose that will as impotent. Nineteenth- and early- twentieth- century explorers and missionaries often portrayed the jungle either as evil inherent or as revealing the evil men carry inside. Traveling through the region in 1930, the Anglican lay leader Kenneth Grubb wrote that the forest brings out the "worst instincts of man, brutalizes the affections, hardens the emotions, and draws out with malign and terrible intention every evil and sordid lust."Theodore Roosevelt's account of his expedition, which first ran as a serial in Scribner's, likewise painted the Amazon as a malevolent place, where things "sinister and evil"lurked in the "dark stillness"of its groves. Ancient trees didn't just fall and decompose but were "murdered,"garroted by the ever tighter twists of vines. Roosevelt described the jungle as being largely "uninhabited by human beings,"portraying its challenges as nearly wholly natural, even preternatural, captured in gothic depictions of "blood- crazy"fish and "bloodsucking"vampire bats. The jungle was "entirely indifferent to good or evil,"he wrote, working "out her ends or no ends with utter disregard of pain and woe."For those readers not familiar with the theology that hell is the absence of God, the Rough Rider left little doubt as to the analogy he was implicitly drawing: he began his tale with a detailed seventeen- page description of treacherous serpents.13
Even more recently, those who survive encounters with the jungle primeval are often compelled to search for some larger meaning in its severity, holding it up as a touchstone to expose the charade of human progress. "We are challenging nature itself and it hits back, it just hits back, that's all,"said the German film director Werner Herzog of the hardships he encountered in making his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. Herzog's notorious attempt to replicate the compulsion of his title character, played by Klaus Kinski, and pull a 340- ton steamship over an Amazon mountain (the movie is based on the life of Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald Lopez, who had the good sense to dismantle the boat before proceeding) leads him to ponder the ethical vacuity of the natural world: "Kinski always says [nature] is full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much as erotic. I see it more as full of obscenity.... Nature here is violent, base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication, and asphyxiation, and choking, and fighting for survival,... just rotting away. Of course there is lots of misery but it is to say misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, the birds here are in misery. They don't sing, they just screech in pain."14
But Henry Ford, along with the men and women he sent down to build his settlement, proved tone- deaf to these kinds of musings, to the metaphors and cliches that entangle much of the writing on the Amazon. There was a stubborn literalness about the midwesterners, engineers mostly but also lumberjacks and sawyers, many of them from Ford's timber operations in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Confronted by the jungle, they didn't turn philosophical. When they looked up in the sky and saw vultures, those rank, jowled carrion eaters that induced in other Amazon wanderers a sense of their transience, they thought of Detroit's pigeons. Life in the dense river forest was hard on many of the Ford staff. Boredom could be overpowering, and a few succumbed to disease and death. Yet rather than provoking thoughts of morality or mortality, the Amazon tended to instill melancholy in Ford's pioneers, a desire to re- create a bygone America, an America that the Ford Motor Company played no small part in dispatching.
While he avoided the more feverish adjectives often attached to the Amazon, Ford nonetheless saw the jungle as a challenge, but it had less to do with overcoming and dominating nature than it did with salvaging a vision of Americana that was slipping out of his grasp at home. That vision was rooted in his experience growing up on a farm in Dearborn and entailed using his wealth and industrial method to safeguard rural virtues and remedy urban ills. He was in his sixties when he founded Fordlandia-- or Fordlandia in Brazilian Portuguese, the circumflex indicating a closed, pinched vowel, the final three letters pronounced "jee- ah"--and the settlement became the terminus for a lifetime of venturesome notions about the best way to or ga nize society.
Ford's idea of a worthy life was chivalrous, especially in its promotion of ballroom dancing. But it was distinctly not adventurous, in contrast to the privations of war, frontier living, and jungle exploration that someone like Theodore Roosevelt celebrated for their ability to strengthen character. "The man who works hard,"Ford once said, "should have his easy-chair, his comfortable fireside, his pleasant surroundings."And so in the Amazon, Ford built Cape Cod-style shingled houses for his Brazilian workers and urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens and eat whole wheat bread and unpolished rice. Coming upon Fordlandia after a trip of hundreds of miles through the jungle, the US military attache to Brazil, Major Lester Baker, called Fordlandia an oasis, a midwestern "dream,"complete with "electric lights, telephones, washing machines, victrolas, and electric refrigerators."Managers enforced Prohibition, or at least tried to, though it wasn't a Brazilian law, and nurseries experimented with giving soy milk to babies, because Henry Ford hated cows. On weekends, the plantation sponsored square dances and recitations of poetry by William Wordsworth and Henry Longfellow. The workers, most of them born and raised in the Amazon, were shown documentaries on African and Antarctic expeditions, including Admiral Richard Byrd's 1929 journey to the South Pole, as well as shorts promoting tourism in Yellowstone Park and celebrating the new, streamlined Lincoln Zephyr. "Henry Ford has transplanted a large slice of twentieth century civilization"to the Amazon, reported Michigan's Iron Mountain Daily News, bringing "a prosperity to the natives that they never before experienced."15
Over the course of nearly two de cades, Ford would spend tens of millions of dollars founding not one but, after the first plantation was devastated by leaf blight, two American towns, complete with central squares, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, hospitals, manicured lawns, movie theaters, swimming pools, golf courses, and, of course, Model Ts and As rolling down their paved streets.
Back in America, newspapers kept up their drumbeat celebration, only obliquely referencing reports that things were not progressing as the company had hoped. But there was one note of skepticism. In late 1928, the Washington Post ran an editorial that read in its entirety: "Ford will govern a rubber plantation in Brazil larger than North Carolina. This is the first time he has applied quantity production methods to trouble."16
It still takes about eighteen hours on a slow riverboat to get to Fordlandia from the nearest provincial city, as long as it did eighty years ago when Ford first sent a crew of Michigan engineers and lumberjacks to begin construction on his town. I've made the trip twice, and the second time it was no less jolting after hours of passing little but green to round a river bend and come upon a 150- foot tower bursting from the forest canopy holding aloft a 150,000- gallon water tank. De cades of rain have since scrubbed off its cursive white Ford logo, yet at the time of its construction the tower was the tallest man- made structure in the Amazon, save for a pair of now dismantled smokestacks that had been attached to the power house. It was the crown jewel of an elaborate water system that daily pumped half a million gallons of filtered and chlorinated water drawn from the river to the town, plantation, and ice plant. Miles of buried pipes fed into indoor sinks and toilets, sewers carried away house hold waste, and fire hydrants-- still a novelty in even the largest Latin American cities-- dotted the town's sidewalks. The water system was run by an electric plant made up of steam boilers, generators, turbines, and engines salvaged from decommissioned navy ships stripped down to scrap at the River Rouge plant a few years earlier, Ford being a pioneer in industrial recycling.
Fordlandia stands on the eastern side of the Tapajos River, the Amazon's fifth largest tributary. Flowing south to north and intersecting with the Amazon about six hundred miles from the Atlantic, the Tapajos is a broad river, with sloping sandy banks that give way to a gradual rise, and at no point on the trip does one feel that the jungle is closing in. It is home to a staggering number of fish, insects, plants, and animals. Yet the valley's big- sky openness often instills in travelers a sensation of tedium. "The prevailing note in the Amazon is one of monotony,"thought Kenneth Grubb, "the same green lines the river- bank, the same gloom fills the forest.... Each successive bend in the river is rounded in expectancy, only to reveal another identical stretch ahead."But then one beholds Ford's miragelike industrial plant. "When the view is had from the deck of a river steamer,"wrote Ogden Pierrot, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Rio, "the imposing structures of the industrial section of the town, with the tremendous water tank and the smokestack of the power house, catch the view and create a sensation of real wonderment."17
As my boat made its way to Fordlandia's dock, the wind cut the jungle humidity, which, in any case, really wasn't that bad. Up a hill from the river's edge stood the town's Catholic church, built after the Ford Motor Company abandoned the place. Ford's managers allowed priests to visit and minister to the population but refused the request of the local bishop to establish a permanent mission and run the town's schools. Farther back loomed the famous water tower, along with the empty lumber mill and power plant. Everything was peaceful and calm, and indeed much more suggestive of Ford's easy- chair arcadia than nature red in tooth and claw. It was difficult to picture the chaos that befell this shore eight decades ago.
The first years of the settlement were plagued by waste, violence, and vice, making Fordlandia more Deadwood than Our Town. The death rate from malaria and yellow fever was high. Bending to hack away at the underbrush with machetes, scores of frontline cutters died from viper bites. Those who fled the plantation brought with them tales of knife fights, riots, and strikes. They complained of rancid food and corrupt and incompetent overseers who defrauded them of pay and turned the forest into a mud hole, burning large swaths of the jungle without the slightest idea of how to plant rubber. In what was perhaps the biggest man- made fire in that part of the Amazon to date, burning leaves floated to the far side of the river as ash wafted across the sky, turning clouds of the rainy season sky into a blood orange haze. Building material sent from Dearborn rusted and rotted on the riverbank. Bags of cement turned to stone in the rain. Migrants desperate for jobs, many of them from Brazil's drought- and famine- stricken northeast, poured into the work camp on rumors that Ford would be hiring tens of thousands of employees and paying five dollars a day. They trailed behind them wives, children, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, building makeshift houses from packing crates and canvas tarps. Rather than a midwestern city of virtue springing from the Amazon green, local merchants set up thatched bordellos, bars, and gambling houses, turning Fordlandia into a rain forest boomtown. Managers eventually established sovereignty over the settlement and achieved something approximating their boss's vision. But then nature rebelled.
Hubris seems the obvious moral attached to Fordlandia, especially considering not just the disaster of its early years but also, even once order was established and the city was more or less functional, rubber's refusal to submit to Ford- style regimentation. Yet surveying what remains of it left me with an almost elegiac feeling. Despite the promiscuous use of fire by its first managers, along with the running of what was billed as the most modern sawmill in all of Latin America, the town doesn't so much invoke the plague of deforestation. That would be easy to rebuke. It rather brings to mind a different kind of loss: deindustrialization. There is in fact an uncanny resemblance between Fordlandia's rusting water tower, broken-glassed sawmill, and empty power plant and the husks of the same structures in Iron Mountain, a depressed industrial city in Michigan's Upper Peninsula that also used to be a Ford town.