'Fordlandia': An Automaker's Failed Jungle Utopia When Henry Ford bought up a Connecticut-sized chunk of land in the Amazon River basin in 1927, he wasn't just planning to build his own vertically-integrated rubber plantation — he also envisioned the small-town America of his youth, reborn in the jungle.


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'Fordlandia': An Automaker's Failed Jungle Utopia

'Fordlandia': An Automaker's Failed Jungle Utopia

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'Fordlandia' cover
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
By Greg Grandin
Hardcover, 432 pages
Metropolitan Books
List Price: $27.50

Read An Excerpt

Author Greg Grandin, a professor at New York University, studies the history of Central and South America. Courtesy of Metropolitan Books hide caption

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Courtesy of Metropolitan Books

Author Greg Grandin, a professor at New York University, studies the history of Central and South America.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Books

Given GPS systems in our cars and Google Earth maps on our personal computers, it seems like there isn't a square inch left on this planet that hasn't been surveyed. But, even if the world's remotest regions have been charted, there are stories about those places that remain unexplored. That's the thrill that historian Greg Grandin's new book, Fordlandia gives a reader: The all-too-rare thrill of discovery. Or, I guess I should say "rediscovery," because, once upon a time, most Americans had heard something in the newspaper or on newsreels about Henry Ford's attempt, in the late 1920s, to build a version of Main Street, USA deep in the Amazon jungle of Brazil.

Ford's all-American town — with its Cape Cod cottages and red fire hydrants, its hospital, swimming pools and golf course — gradually gave way to the encroaching vines, vipers and damp of the Amazon. In 2005, when Grandin first visited the ruins of Fordlandia — still an 18-hour journey by riverboat from the nearest provincial city — a few elderly residents still remained who remembered the gleaming city that was, and they spoke glowingly of Mr. Ford and his vision.

Grandin is both an academic authority on Central and South America and a compelling story-teller: He's written a fascinating narrative history, not only of Fordlandia, but also of Henry Ford's later career, when the nightmarish aspects of the assembly line revolution that he'd created bedeviled him.

As Grandin tells it, the "official story" behind the founding of Fordlandia was commercial: Henry Ford wanted to grow rubber trees to supply tires for the cars his plants were churning out. But that was the rational excuse for a project that was much more utopian in its ambitions.

Ford, then in his 60s, had begun to look backward in the 1920s to a pre-industrial Golden Age in America. The mechanized horrors of World War I and, later, troubles on the home front — particularly the rise of his bitter foe, Franklin Roosevelt, and the backlash he'd begun to receive for his anti-Semitic tirades — had deeply unnerved him.

Grandin traces how Ford began escaping into the past by collecting antiques and founding rustic villages in Michigan that evoked the farm community of his childhood. When Brazilian officials dangled land in front of Ford, he saw a chance to begin the world anew. In 1927, Ford snapped up a parcel in the Amazon basin roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. For the next decade or so the father of standardized parts and sparkling factory cleanliness lost millions in an epic battle with the chaos that is the Amazon jungle.

Grandin says that "the first years of the settlement were plagued by waste, violence and vice, making Fordlandia more Deadwood than Our Town." Indeed, the stories he tells of Ford men in their ties and white linen suits "going native" are, well, just wild. In 1929, for instance, a trusted employee dispatched into the jungle to gather rubber seeds wound up ignoring Ford's prohibition against alcohol, getting semi-permanently drunk, and proceeding to go around baptizing cows and pigs with bottles of perfume he'd gotten from a trading post, reportedly intoning this benediction: "Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good too."

Especially interesting is Grandin's account of the native laborers' resistance to the strictures of industrial time. Whistles and time clocks were foreign to workers who measured time by the sun and seasons. As one Ford official complained, it was difficult "to make 365-day machines out of these people."

After a riot destroyed the first settlement, order was imposed and a Disneyfied town took shape in the jungle with 400 clapboard houses, shops and an open-air dance hall where wholesome minuets and polkas prevailed — Ford disapproved of the "sex dancing" that was then sweeping America.

Fordlandia, Grandin explains, never quite succeeded: Leaf blight and insects decimated the closely-planted rubber trees and, perhaps of special insult to the virulently anti-union Ford, the rubber plantation workers successfully unionized themselves in 1939, years before the UAW negotiated a contract with his River Rouge plant in Michigan. One final historical irony that Grandin excavates is that in 1941, Ford even gave tacit permission to FDR's Committee on Political refugees to resettle European Jews at the failing Fordlandia. Like the overriding plan of escape that inspired Fordlandia, nothing ever came of it.

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Excerpt: 'Fordlandia'

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
By Greg Grandin
Hardcover, 432 pages
Metropolitan Books
List Price: $27.50

From Chapter 15: "Kill All the Americans"

It took Dearborn's purchasing agents some effort to find a factory whistle that wouldn't rust from the jungle humidity. Once they did, they shipped it to Fordlandia, where it was perched on top of the water tower, above the tall trees, giving it a seven-mile range. The whistle was piercing enough not only to reach dispersed road gangs and fieldhands but to be heard across the river, where even those not affiliated with Fordlandia began to pace their day to its regularly scheduled blows. The whistle was supplemented by another icon of industrial factory work: pendulum punch time clocks, placed at different locations around the plantation, that recorded exactly when each employee began and ended his workday.

In Detroit, immigrant workers by the time they got to Ford's factories, even if they were peasants and shepherds, had had ample opportunity to adjust to the meter of industrial life. The long lines at Ellis Island, the clocks that hung on the walls of depots and waiting rooms, the fairly precise schedules of ships and trains, and standardized time that chopped the sun's daily arc into zones combined to guide their motions and change their inner sense of how the days passed.

But in the Amazon, the transition between agricultural time and industrial time was much more precipitous. Prior to showing up at Fordlandia, many of the plantation's workers who had lived in the region had set their pace by two distinct yet complementary timepieces. The first was the sun, its rise and fall marking the beginning and end of the day, its apex signaling the time to take to the shade and sleep. The second was the turn of the seasons: most of the labor needed to survive was performed during the relatively dry months of June to November. Rainless days made rubber tapping possible, while the recession of the floods exposed newly enriched soils, ready to plant, and concentrated fish, making them easier to catch. But nothing was set in stone. Excessive rain or prolonged periods of drought or heat led to adjustments of schedules. Before the coming of Ford, Tapajos workers lived time, they didn't measure it — most rarely ever heard church bells, much less a factory whistle. It was difficult, therefore, as David Riker, who performed many jobs for Ford, including labor recruiter, said, "to make 365-day machines out of these people."

Fordlandia's managers and foremen, in contrast, were mostly engineers, precise in their measurement of time and motion. One of the first things the Americans did was set their watches and clocks to Detroit time, where Fordlandia remains to this day (nearby Santarem runs an hour earlier). They scratched their heads when confronted with workers they routinely described as "lazy." Archie Weeks's daughter remembers her father throwing his straw hat on the ground more than once in frustration. With a decided sense of purpose that grated against the established rhythms of Tapajos life (David Riker liked to say that hurry was an "obscene" word in the valley), proudly affiliated with a company renowned for its vanguard interlocking efficiency, Ford's men tended to treat Brazilians as instruments. And called them such. Matt Mulrooney gave his workers nicknames. "This fellow I had named Telephone. When I wanted to send a message or an order down front, I'd just holler, 'Telephone!' and he'd show up."

And they used themselves as standards to measure the value of Brazilian labor. "Two of our people easily carried some timbers which twelve Brazilians did not seem to be able to handle," observed a Dearborn official at the end of 1930. What a man could do in a Dearborn day "would take one of them guys three days to do it down there."

These American managers and foremen did, after all, work for a man whose obsession with time long predated his drive to root out "lost motion" and "slack" in the workday by dividing the labor needed to build the Model T into ever smaller tasks: 7,882 to be exact, according to Ford's own calculations. As a boy, Ford regularly took apart and reassembled watches and clocks. "Every clock in the Ford home," a neighbor once recalled, "shuddered when it saw him coming." He even invented a two-faced watch, one to keep "sun time" and the other Chicago time — that is, central standard time. Thirteen when his mother died giving birth to her ninth child, Henry later described his home after her passing as "a watch without a mainspring."

He also knew that attempts to change the measure of time could lead to resistance — again, well before he met labor opposition to his assembly line speedup. He was twenty-two when, in 1885, most of Detroit refused to obey a municipal ordinance to promote the "unification of time," as the campaign to get the United States to accept the Greenwich meridian as the universal standard was called. "Considerable confusion" prevailed, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, as Detroit "showed her usual conservatism in refusing to adopt Standard Time." It took more than two decades to get the city to fully "abandon solar time" and set its clocks back twenty-eight minutes and fifty-one seconds to harmonize with Chicago and the rest of the Midwest (the city would switch to eastern standard time in 1915, both to have more sunlight hours and to synchronize the city's factories with New York banks).

In Fordlandia, industrial regimentation entailed a host of other initiatives besides whistles and punch card clocks. The paying of set bimonthly wages, based on those punched cards, was the most obvious. So was a conception of the workday that made as little concession as possible to the weather, keeping workers "on the clock" when rain poured down in sheets and the temperature soared past 105 degrees. The effort to rationalize life reached into the smallest details of a worker's day. As in Dearborn, plantation employees were required to wear a metal Ford badge, embossed with their ID number and an industrial panorama that included a factory complex, an airplane, two ships (the Ormoc and Farge?), and a water tower. The fieldhands who cleared the jungle and tended to the young rubber trees often took off their shirts in the heat, and so they pinned their badges to their belt buckles. The cost of a lost badge was deducted from wages.

Excerpted from Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. Copyright 2009 by Greg Grandin. Published by Metropolitan Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.