Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

By GREG GRANDIN

In 1927, Henry Ford, vast in determination, ingenuity, and protuberant opinion, and increasingly contradictory in his fantasies, moved forward with his plans for a settlement in Brazil’s Amazonian jungle, soon known as Fordlandia. Initially inspired by the carmaker’s alarm over a proposed British and Dutch rubber cartel, the project was an experiment in applying the principles of mass production to agriculture, specifically rubber plants and their tapping. But it was also an attempt to create a “great industrial city” in which a harmony of mechanization and nature would give rise to a better and, as Ford firmly believed, Emersonian way of life. Ford’s distaste for expertise and precedent led him to ignore the experience of companies that had successfully exploited the tropics. He was swindled and misled in the land deal and pushed his own views on everything, imposing industrial regimentation and American ideas of a decent life — punctuality, indoor plumbing, canned peaches, square dancing, and the like — upon a pre-industrial people. The result was a failure with many installments, but it paled before the fiasco of attempting to subdue the gigantically vital, implacable jungle with its legion of parasites. Growing rubber trees according to Dearborn, Michigan’s, notions of efficiency was never achieved, and the effort was made all the more futile by tumbling rubber prices. In a sense the entire enterprise was a sideshow, darkly comic at times, in the progress of global capitalism; but under Grandin’s complex scrutiny and eye for character, it also provides a multifaceted, if ghoulishly lighted, spectacle of Henry Ford’s preoccupations and disenchantment with America as it had come to be in the 1920s and 1930s.