In The 1920s, Which One Of These Industrial Titans Built An Entire City In South America?
Answer: Henry Ford
When you think of Henry Ford, you likely think of advances in automation, early 20th century industrialism, and, naturally, the company that still bears his name today. What you likely don’t think of is a South American city, yet if we take a little journey into the curious history of the Ford Motor Company, we can venture thousands of miles from Detroit, Michigan and end up in the jungles of Brazil.
In the late 1920s, Ford bought around 2.5 million acres in Brazil with a vision of turning it not just into a profitable rubber factory (thus allowing him to cut out the middle man and stop paying high prices for rubber), but an industrialized utopia to boot. The small city, Fordlândia, was carved out of the jungle off the banks of the Tapajos river. In short order, the area resembled a transplanted Midwestern U.S. town, complete with well organized streets, tidy homes, a school, and even a hospital.
Problematically, however, everything from the climate to the jungle to the people themselves conspired against Ford’s grand plan. Not only was the jungle dangerous and made simply building the city difficult, but the hazards extended well past the development stage. Further, the numerous insects and tree blight that preyed on the rubber trees made keeping the crop healthy and productive nearly impossible—Ford was a sharp businessman, but not necessarily a sharp agriculturalist.
On top of fighting the jungle, Ford also found himself fighting cultural differences. Ford had very particular beliefs about the way everything should be structured from the length of the work day to the types of food the workers should eat. Work culture was problematic too. A big part of Ford’s success in the U.S. was that he had his workers work reasonable hours and earn good wages, which afforded them the time and disposable income to enjoy a consumer lifestyle. In the depths of the Amazon jungle, however, there simply wasn’t much for his workers to buy, and when they had enough money to afford the small things they wanted, they were prone to ditching work, returning to their villages, and only showing back up at Fordlândia when they wished to make more income later in the year (or even in the next year).
The experiment ultimately failed and Fordlândia dwindled away. Today, the majority of the settlement is in ruins with less than 2,000 people living there, largely making a living off tourists curious about the fate of Ford’s grand vision.
Image courtesy of The Henry Ford.