Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford's Jungle Utopia Henry Ford didn't just want to be a maker of cars — he wanted to be a maker of men. He thought he could perfect society by building model factories and pristine villages to go with them. And he was pretty successful at it in Michigan. But in the jungles of Brazil, he would ultimately be defeated.

Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford's Jungle Utopia

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It was 1927. Ford wanted his own supply of rubber, and he decided to get it by carving a plantation and a miniature Midwest factory town out of the Amazon jungle. It was called Fordlandia.

M: We had everything that we really wanted. We had a swimming pool, tennis court, golf course. And I had my animals, my Chico, which was a rare monkey.

LYDEN: Leonor Weeks DeCeco was 8 years old when she joined her father in Henry Ford's jungle utopia.

M: My dad was a construction engineer, and he was in charge of everything, and I enjoyed being down there with him.

LYDEN: But for pretty much everyone else, it was a green hell of riot and blight. Author Greg Grandin tells the story in his new book, "Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City." Grandin's been to the ruins of Fordlandia. The trip takes 16 hours by riverboat from the nearest town, just as it did for Henry Ford's agents in 1927.

M: It's a very broad river and it's all the same. And then all of a sudden, you turn the corner and there's an enormous water tower bursting out of the jungle canopy. At the time, it was the largest building in - the largest manmade structure in the Amazon. And it was the centerpiece of an industrial plant, a powerhouse, a sawmill, and then also an American town. That was the closest replication of Main Street America. A commercial strip with sidewalks, and red fire hydrants that set back these three and four-room houses that looked like they could be straight out of Michigan.

LYDEN: Almost from the beginning there is huge clash of cultures between mechanized America and Ford's utopian ideals and the way that rubber tappers and indigenous people have been living. Can you explain that?

M: Well, there were two waves of failures at Fordlandia, and the first was social. The first years of the settlement were plagued by waste, and violence, and vice, and knife fights, and there were riots over food, and attempts to impose Ford-style regimentation. When people ask me what Fordlandia was like, I tell them to think more of "Deadwood" than "Our Town."

LYDEN: For example, didn't things go badly wrong over something as simple as serving people food?

M: Yes. Ford had very particular understandings about what a proper diet should be. He tried to impose brown rice and whole-wheat bread and canned peaches and oatmeal, and that itself created discontent. But then, a Ford engineer arrived in Fordlandia and changed the way food was actually served, from wait service to cafeteria-style service, and that led to one of the largest rebellions of Fordlandia. Workers destroyed the mess hall, pushed trucks into the river, and nearly ruined the whole operation. It cost tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

LYDEN: What about Ford's whole notion of trying to tame the jungle itself and create a rubber plantation, the trees?

M: Ford basically tried to impose mass industrial production on the diversity of the jungle. He once famously said that it took 7,882 distinct tasks to make a Model T. But the Amazon is the most complex place, ecological system in the world. It's a place where 7,882 organisms could exist on any given five acres.


M: And it created an epic clash of opposites. And nowhere was this more obvious and more acute than when it came to rubber production.

LYDEN: Well, didn't you write that he was so distrustful of experts that here he is staking millions of his fortune on this and he never consults an expert about the rubber tree?

M: Yes. And if he had consulted an expert, he would've learned that the reason why you can't grow plantation rubber in the Amazon is because the pests and the fungi and the blight that feed off of rubber are native to the Amazon. Basically, when you put trees close together in the Amazon, what you in effect do is create an incubator. But Ford insisted on that, and that accelerated the production of caterpillars, of leaf blight, of other insects that preyed off of rubber, and laid waste to the plantation.

LYDEN: The kinds of people he brought down to run it, these Michiganders, even when there wasn't labor unrest, they really had a hard time in the jungle. They were subject to the diseases, and for the women, the boredom.

M: Yes. Children did well and they seemed to enjoy it. I had the opportunity to speak to a number of children who grew up on Fordlandia. But the adults had a bit of a harder time. They succumbed to the heat, the oppressive humidity. Wives who accompanied the men down to Fordlandia had less to do. Men at least were charged with trying to build a town and build a plantation.

LYDEN: Greg Grandin, your book is as much about Henry Ford's ego and personality, as it was about his work in the Amazon. You know, one of the things that struck a chord is that he keeps pouring money into it after every failure: after revolts, after blight, after key operatives decide to leave. Today we'd call that doubling down on a bad idea.


M: Yeah, in some ways. And the analogy with what recently happened on Iraq is fairly obvious. The more the project fails on its own terms: that is to grow rubber and produce latex for Ford cars, keeping in mind that not one drop of latex from Fordlandia ever made it into a Ford car, the more Ford justified the project in idealistic terms, increasingly was justified as a work of civilization or as a sociological experiment. And one newspaper article said that Ford's intent was not just to cultivate rubber but cultivate workers, cultivate human beings.

LYDEN: What is Fordlandia like now?

M: It's actually quite beautiful. At the American town, the American village where managers and the administration lived is abandoned. And, as you can expect, it's overgrown by weeds, and bats live in the house, and the walls are glazed with the sheen of guano. The red fire hydrants are all overgrown with vines.

LYDEN: You know, it's such an image, this Michigan industrial town in the middle of a jungle. For years, the residents of Fordlandia believed that Ford would come, kind of like Jesus or something.


LYDEN: And he talked about coming and he's going to come. He's going to come. And he never does.

M: Well, he kept on promising to come. And Brazilians kept inviting him to come. And what's interesting is that there's very few residents now that actually lived during the time when Fordlandia was running, it was quite a while ago. But there's a sense more than one person, quite a number of people, all related the same story that Ford was planning to come and was all set to visit Fordlandia. But then his son, Edsel, died and he had to cancel the trip. And they all speculate that if he hadn't cancelled the trip that perhaps he wouldn't have shuttered the plantation. So in some ways, they're still waiting for Henry Ford.

LYDEN: Thank you very much.

M: Thank you.

LYDEN: And you can find a photo gallery of Fordlandia at our Web site,

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