Fordlandia: Henry Ford’s Forgotten City Deep in Brazil’s Amazon

Fordlandia

By: Drew Reed

In 1928, northern Brazil was captivated by an enticing bit of news. The region’s residents were about to receive a new visitor, a man who came with the promise of reviving their ailing economy and introducing them to a whole new way of life – Henry Ford.

Local papers began raving about their future neighbor. Speculation ran wild: some columnists opined that Ford would be building a new railroad to the coast, or a new factory for his cars. Above all, they just wanted to know when he would be arriving.

Officially, Ford’s interest in Brazil was a business venture: the monopoly on Sri Lankan rubber maintained by Britain was driving up costs for his new Model A cars, so he wanted to find a cheap source of latex that would allow the Ford Motor Company to produce its own tires, to cut costs.

It is difficult to overstate the reputation Henry Ford had built for himself by that time – whether in Brazil, America, or anywhere else on the planet. In his day, Ford’s name was every bit as evocative of the glimmering promise of technological revolution as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg – perhaps even more so.

Ford became increasingly convinced that his role in advancing society had to go beyond the factory floor, and encompass entire cities. While he succeeded in bringing some of his smaller urban planning concepts to life, his much larger project, a massive manufacturing city to be built in northern Alabama – 75 miles long, with power supplied by damming the Tennessee river – never got off the ground.

Eventually, Ford settled on a location for his ideal city that was a good deal further south than Alabama: the Amazon.

Fresh off the failure of his Alabama development, Ford grew fascinated with the economically ravaged Amazon as a potential site for a reboot of his Utopian aspirations. He had reportedly first become interested by the area after hearing ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend, tell of his journey down the river. Increasing rubber prices gave a practical aspect to his dream.

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By 1927, the economic justification for Ford’s proposed incursion into Brazil had become less convincing. Britain’s stranglehold on global rubber began to diminish, and his advisers suggested he would be better off purchasing rubber from local suppliers in Brazil. But Ford soon sent two of his most trusted men to reach an agreement with Brazilian authorities.

Ford’s uphill battle

The site of Fordlandia had been chosen on top of a rise, to protect it from flooding. But this meant it was far enough inland that the cargo vessel chosen to haul construction materials could not pass through the rocky waters of the Tapajós until the rainy season. A crew assembled at the future site of the city in late 1928, angered by a rotting food supply, and revolted against its leadership.

Fordlandia Workers
Workers clearing the rainforest before construction can begin

Materials didn’t arrive at Fordlandia until early 1929. Construction finally began under the command of the Norwegian-born Einar Oxholm, who oversaw the laying out of Fordlandia’s basic street grid.

The city was built with a separate neighbourhood, the Vila Americana, for the American staff who worked there. Grandin points out that this development was separated from the areas intended for Brazilian workers. “It was offset a bit, similar to the relationship of suburbia to a city,” he says. The Vila Americana had the best view of the city, and was the only section with running water; while the Brazilian workers made do with water supplied by wells.

Fordlandia dance hall
To attract workers to Fordlandia, Ford offered a range of services – including an 18-hole golf course and dance hall. Photograph: The collections of Henry Ford

The city would come to feature modern hospitals, schools, generators and a sawmill. By the end of 1930, its landmark structure was complete: a water tower, utilitarian beacon of modernity for Ford’s “civilizing” project.

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Fordlandia’s school was one of the best in the state.
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Fordlandia’s hospital was a pioneer in healthcare at the region..

But it still faced an uphill battle. Clearing the jungle was excruciating work, and despite Ford’s famously high wages, labour of the kind needed for the project was in short supply. Amazon wood, which Ford had initially hoped to sell at a profit until rubber could be produced in the territory, proved useless.

The local press, initially friendly, turned on Ford and his project. Meanwhile, Ford’s desire that the city remain alcohol-free proved all but impossible to enforce. Oxholm didn’t last long as manager – the city would go through several managers in its first two years.

 

The Riot

Just when things appeared to be settling down in Fordlandia, violence broke out again on 20 December 1930. At the workers’ cafe, in which skilled workers were separated from manual labourers, an argument between supervisor Kaj Ostenfeld and Manuel Caetano, a brick mason working at the city, quickly escalated. Workers rallied behind Caetano, vandalising the city, destroying generators, manufacturing equipment, and even their own homes.

Fordlandia’s managerial staff managed to escape by ship; they were eventually able to subdue the violence, but only by appealing to Pan Am air magnate Juan Trippe to assist them by flying in Brazilian military personnel on one of his planes.

After this low point, Fordlandia faced a turning point. Ford finally found a successful manager in Archibald Johnston, who turned the city around after the riot: paving the roads, finishing much of the city’s much needed housing, and beginning work on access roads to connect Fordlandia with the massive territory Ford had acquired inland from the river.

It was perhaps under Johnston that Fordlandia came closest to Ford’s original ideal. He succeeded in bringing many of the amenities typical of American towns into the heart of the Amazon basin. The centrepiece was an entertainment facility that screened Hollywood films and also held dances. Health and education facilities were also improved. Johnson saw to it that many of Ford’s behavioural edicts were put into place, including a strict diet (though the alcohol provision still remained hard to enforce), and an emphasis on gardening.

But one problem remained: Fordlandia was not producing any rubber. Jungle foliage continued to be cleared, but efforts to plant rubber trees yielded discouraging results. The few trees that took root were quickly beset by blight.

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Johnston and Weir at Rubber Tree Seedling Nursery, Fordlandia

To combat this, Ford brought in expert botanist James R Weir, who infuriated Johnston by insisting on a number of extravagant planting methods, and then, in 1936, demanding the construction of a second plant within Ford’s territory, called Belterra. Weir unceremoniously departed from Fordlandia a year later, without informing any staff of his intention to never return.

Despite having outlived their economic rationale, Fordlandia and Belterra nonetheless persisted for nearly a decade. As Ford’s car manufacturing operation became increasingly involved in the second world war effort, his holding in Brazil filled with American military personnel.

Ford II sold it back to Brazil for a fraction of what his grandfather had originally paid. The moment news of the sale reached Fordlandia, its American residents headed home, leaving its Brazilian residents wondering what had hit them.

A quiet death of Fordlandia

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In contrast to the excitement generated around its creation, Fordlandia’s death was a quiet one. Equipment from the sawmill and generator was left to the elements and vandals over the years, rusting in the thick Amazon air. The iconic water tower still stands, though it no longer holds any water, and the Ford logo proudly painted on it has long since faded.

 

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