The first Model T car rolled off the assembly line on this day in 1908. The “Tin Lizzie,” and the “Fordism” that came with it, have been featured in a range of literature, Huxley’s “year of our Ford” in Brave New World perhaps the most famous instance. But there is nothing in fiction to rival the true story told in Fordlandia (2009), Greg Grandin’s account of the company town Ford plunked down in the Brazilian rainforest. Originally planned as a deep-jungle Dearborn, the settlement’s broken streets and rotting buildings are today a memorial along the roadside of capitalism, marking a spot where human nature and nature itself collided head-on with Father Ford and the Model T mindset.
In 1928 Ford contracted with the Brazilian government to create a rubber plantation, Brazil getting 9 percent of the profits and Ford getting godlike control over some 4,000 square miles of jungle. Over the next seventeen years, Ford poured millions into his very American vision, its infrastructure imported by the shipload: Cape Cod-style barracks for the native workers, generating plants for their telephones and Victrolas, hospitals for their babies and viper bites, square dances and poetry readings for their downtime, with paved streets—”Main Street” and “Riverside Avenue”—full of Model Ts and As.
The journalists bought into the vision, one early report in Time describing how “Black Indians armed with heavy blades will slash down their one-time haunts to make way for future windshield wipers, floor mats and balloon tires.” But as early as 1930 at least one State Department observer was scratching his head:
In the last few months, the writer has arrived at an opinion, based on a number of different facts. This belief is that Mr. Ford considers the project as a “work of civilization.”… Nothing else will explain the lavish expenditure of money…. On the basis of this theory, discarding any interpretation ascribing to the work the character of a purely commercial venture, it is possible to understand many things which are otherwise inexplicable.
For a time, the local workers accepted wearing their company badges, punching the company clock, and giving up their midday siesta. They even tolerated the Prohibition Era rules and the clean-living standards, circumventing these with a satellite settlement of riverboat bars and brothels. But then a 1930 riot—the drunken, discontented workers shouting “Brazil for Brazilians, Kill all the Americans”—forced relocation and resettlement. And then, over the next decade, jungle bugs and blights slowly destroyed the too closely planted rubber trees. The land was sold at a $20 million loss in 1945, without one balloon tire ever being made from Brazilian rubber.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.