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IN THE early part of the last century, Henry Ford’s social engineering achieved a miracle of capitalism: His workers could actually afford the fruits of their labor (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-tH). Later, in 1927 (the last year his fabulously successful Model T was built), Ford attempted to extend this concept—into the Brazilian Amazon. There, in a tract of land twice the size of Delaware, Ford envisioned growing his own rubber for tires, hoses and other car parts.
That Harvey Firestone was a good pal was apparently beside the point (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-1Iv). And, actually, Ford’s real motive was to beat Britain and its control of Malaysian rubber.
There were cultural aspects as well. Akin to his $5/day wages in 1914 accompanied by home inspections for cleanliness and sobriety, Henry envisioned his Brazilian community of Fordlândia as being a socially engineered replica of small-town America. This, in the Amazon rainforest.
That the project failed is only part of the fascinating book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. The sheer audacity of attempting such a project boggles the mind, though author Grandin describes its logical rationale as well as jingoistic arrogance.
Rubber barons had already established the city of Manaus in northern Brazil, on the Amazon about 2500 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
Ford quietly bought up 2.5 million acres some 200 miles east of Manaus, on which to cultivate his own rubber plantation—not to say the small-town American work ethic. Managers and overseers were brought in from Michigan; the rest of the work force was hired locally.
Fordlândia consisted of prefabricated buildings patterned after their North American equivalents. The hospital, for example, was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn. Many of the homes were Cape Cod bungalows, with only minor concessions to the Amazon rainforest.
In encouraging—no, make that “enforcing”—his vision of Middle America in the Brazilian rainforest, Ford forbade alcohol, tobacco and loose women within the town limits of Fordlândia. Locals responded by paddling out to riverboats moored beyond the town limits. Also, another settlement evolved five miles upstream on an “island of innocence” with bars, nightclubs and brothels.
Succinctly, the managers and overseers didn’t know much about cultivating rubber plants. The indigenous population cared even less about Cape Cod bungalows, a diet of brown rice, whole-wheat bread and canned peaches—and working through the heat of the day.
By World War II, developments of synthetic rubber complicated the economics of Fordlândia even further.
Despite the fact that Ford invested $20 million in the project, in 1945 it was sold to the Brazilian government for $244,200. Henry Ford himself never visited the place.
Such complex history obviously encourages historical fiction as well, and Eduardo Sguiglia’s book, Fordlandia: A Novel, has received excellent reviews from readers.
The Library Journal writes of the novel, “Shades of King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Fitzcarraldo…,” this last, a 1982 West German Werner Herzog flick about an Irish rubber baron in Peru.
Also, IMDb cites another movie in development, Fordlândia 1928.
Last, my Microsoft Flight Simulator has add-on scenery of Fordlândia, complete with factories, ships in the river and neat rows of Cape Cod bungalows, all rendered by simmers of the Ford Tri-Motor Project Team.
All this, apparently, because Henry Ford wanted to one-up his pal Harvey Firestone. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014