Fordlandia, Brazil

Henry Ford and His Model T (Getty Images)
By 1928, Henry Ford had ridden his Model T to success. More than fifteen million of these cars were produced during the Model T’s nineteen year production run, but he needed rubber for car tires, (this was a time before synthetic rubber) and all rubber had to be gotten from cultivated rubber trees. He preferred Brazilian rubber trees to those of India, so he came up with a plan to have a consistant source of rubber and fulfill his dream of being a society builder as well as a factory man. His goal, as stated in 1928 was, “We are not going to South America to make money, but to help develop that wonderful and fertile land.”

Cover Art for “Fordlandia” by Greg Grandin
Ford pictured a perfect little town hewn out of the jungle with rubber tree groves and happy Brazilian workers living the American dream in South America. He acquired a six thousand square mile land grant from the Brazilian government, and the workers he hired to build the prefabricated town were happy with the promise of free housing, but his Dearborn dream was not to be.

An American Car at Odds with the Rain Forest
From the very beginning, there were problems like mud, scorpions, and the jungle to contend with, but his early career and six bankruptcies had taught him to double down on unsuccess (sic).

A Row of Finished Houses in Fordlandia
For a moment it seemed like the experiment would work. The town was built. The workers stayed to grow the rubber trees. There was even a system of little red fire hydrants in case of fires, but it was neither fires nor mud that led to Fordlandia’s ruin. It was the American food.

Some of the Destruction after the “Breaking of the Pans” Riot – Sangue, suor e seringais (flickr)
In 1930, the workers revolted in the cafeteria. Their main complaint was their dislike of the American food. The Brazilian Army came in and ended the revolt, but even with the changes made to the Fordlandian diet, the tension never fully dissipated. There were more riots, and bad management, and by 1945 the dream was abandoned for the more urban Belterra Ford plant.

Fordlandia Production Plant is Overgrown Today – Tom Flanagan (flickr)
Today, it is still mostly abandoned, although a few Brazilians have moved back into the houses and the production plant. The jungle has taken back the street and the rubber tree groves. It has even overgrown the hydrants.
That’s it, except to say that in 1914 Henry Ford offered his employees $5 a day (double the market standard at the time) so that his workers could “make a living and not just a wage.” So long, until next week.

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