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The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Greg Grandin


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ISBN10: 0312429622
ISBN13: 9780312429621

Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist
A National Book Award Finalist
A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets.

Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash. On one side was the car magnate, lean, austere, the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions; on the other, the Amazon, lush, extravagant, the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford's early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers, rejecting his midwestern Puritanism, turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown. Fordlandia's eventual demise as a rubber plantation foreshadowed the practices that today are laying waste to the rain forest.

More than a parable of one man's arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural world, Fordlandia depicts a quixotic mission to recreate the small-town America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch. As Greg Grandin shows in this mordantly observed history, Ford's great delusion was not that the Amazon could be tamed but that the forces of capitalism, once released, might yet be contained.


Praise for Fordlandia

"Historian Greg Grandin has taken what heretofore seemed just such a marginal event—Henry Ford's failed attempt to establish a gigantic agricultural industrial complex in the heart of Brazil's Amazon Basin—and turned it into a fascinating historical narrative that illuminates the auto industry's contemporary crisis, the problems of globalization and the contradictions of contemporary consumerism. For all of that, this is not, however, history freighted with political pedantry. Grandin is one of a blessedly expanding group of gifted American historians who assume that whatever moral the story of the past may yield, it must be a story well told. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City is precisely that—a genuinely readable history recounted with a novelist's sense of pace and an eye for character. It's a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves and engrossingly enjoyable."—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

"The Amazon has always proved fertile soil for extravagant utopian fantasy. Victorian explorers, American industrialists, ideologues and missionaries all projected their dreams and ideas onto this terra incognita, this untamed wilderness of exotic possibility . . . With Fordlandia, Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, tells a haunting story that falls squarely into this tradition: Henry Ford's failed endeavor to export Main Street America to the jungles of Brazil. Fordlandia was a commercial enterprise, intended to extract raw material for the production of motor cars, but it was framed as a civilizing mission, an attempt to build the ideal American society within the Amazon. As described in this fascinating account, it was also the reflection of one man's personality—arrogant, brilliant and very odd . . . Indeed, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness resonates through every page of this book, as the white men struggle and succumb to the jungle. In 1929, two Ford employees, Johansen, a Scot, and Tolksdorf, a German, headed upriver with orders to collect rubber seeds. Instead, they went on an alcoholic bender, marooned their cook on a deserted island and ended up in the tiny town of Barra. There Johansen, the self-proclaimed 'rubber seed king of the upper rivers,' bought some perfume from a trading post and was seen chasing goats, cows and chickens, attempting to anoint the animals with perfume and shouting: 'Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good too.' A drunken man spraying perfume into the jungle is an oddly fitting image for the entire enterprise. The great carmaker himself witnessed none of this. He never set foot in the town that bore his name, yet his powerful, contradictory personality influenced every aspect of the project. The story of Fordlandia is a biography of Ford in relief, the man who championed small-town America but did more to destroy it than any other, the pioneer who aimed to lift workers from drudgery but pioneered a method of soul-destroying mass production that rendered them mere cogs."—Ben Macintyre, The New York Times Book Review

"Had Henry Ford stumbled into El Dorado, the Amazon's legendary golden city, he probably wouldn't have had much use for it. He was already rich, and his idea of a jungle city was a tad more austere. Or at least that's the argument that Grandin puts forth in his thoroughly researched account of Ford's ill-fated Amazonian rubber plantation. In 1928 Ford purchased a large tract of Brazilian jungle, hoping to establish a rubber plantation to supply his car company with latex. Things quickly went awry, however, as his dreams of industrial efficiency were pummeled to death by woes ecological (disease, drought, deadly snakes) and social (local laborers bristled at a Ford-imposed lifestyle that was heavy on soy and temperance). When the plantation was shuttered in 1945, it had failed to produce a single drop of latex for a Ford vehicle. But Grandin posits that Ford clung to his jungle kingdom mainly as a social experiment, hoping to construct a utopia complete with New England-style cottages and a golf course. As jungle adventures go, it's not exactly Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but Fordlandia implies similar lessons: Looking for a shining city in the middle of the jungle is probably a bad idea."—Aaron Leitko, The Washington Post

"Bungalows with modern plumbing and screened windows; hospitals, schools, sidewalks, recreation halls, tennis courts, swimming pools, even a golf course: On the face of it, Henry Ford's vast 1930s rubber plantation deep in the Amazon jungle—called Fordlandia—provided all the modern amenities for both its American managers and its Brazilian laborers. What it couldn't provide was rubber. Greg Grandin's riveting account of this 'forgotten jungle city' demonstrates that in business, as well as in affairs of state, the means may be abundant but the ends still unachievable."—Stuart Ferguson, The Wall Street Journal

"In 1927, Henry Ford was the world's richest man, with a company so strong it tried to do something only countries usually manage: It became a colonial power. Seeking a source for tires and gaskets, Ford exacted a concession from the Brazilian government for a piece of Amazon jungle the size of Connecticut and set out to build a rubber plantation. Moreover, he decreed the town of Fordlandia would be an all-American place, never mind the habits of the locals (bandstands and ice-cream shops were built; Prohibition was enforced). From page one, it's clear Fordlandia was doomed. Two things keep you reading: curiosity over how long this harebrained scheme could go on, and Ford himself, who, in his later years, was less a visionary than a wack job, full of crackpot ideas about diet, sociology, and (as everyone knows by now) Jews."—Christopher Bonanos, New York magazine

"In 1927, Henry Ford decided that instead of paying for the rubber he needed for his cars, he'd grow it. He acquired a tract of Amazon rain forest about the size of Connecticut, and Fordlandia was born. Ford poured $20 million into the doomed project to grow rubber trees, battling disease, insects and rebellious workers. Defeated, the Ford company sold it to the Brazilian government in 1945. NYU professor Greg Grandin presents a nuanced explanation for Ford's dreams. Having forever changed small-town America with his Model T, Ford yearned to start fresh in a new world. He gave his workers good wages, dance lessons and health care. He demanded they give up booze. Brilliant, original, contrarian, an anti-Semite and cruel to his son, Ford remains an enigma."—Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

"Henry Ford dreamed big as a matter of course, and in 1928 he decided to find and develop the ideal location to revive commercial-level rubber production in the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Greg Grandin tells the fascinating tale of Ford's campaign to transplant modern industrial methods that had succeeded for him in Detroit to the site he had selected along the Tapajós River, a branch of the Amazon. Brazil, of course, welcomed its illustrious benefactor with open arms (and, in many cases, open palms). But financial largesse and benevolent attitudes can mask less selfless motives in a donor's agenda. After all, latex was the sole component for his industry that Ford didn't control, and he had plans for changing that with his Brazilian venture. As part of his jungle dream, Ford also planned to build a town, Fordlandia, that would showcase all the virtues of the American 19th century small-town life of his youth. Imagining Brazilian plantation workers thriving under his personal ideal of high wages and healthy, moral living, he 'built Cape Cod-style shingled houses for his Brazilian workers and urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens, and eat whole wheat bread and unpolished rice.' Ballroom dancing and golf were leisure activities that he promoted. Nobody had the temerity to ask, 'In the middle of the Amazon rain forest? Are you deranged?' Even if people had challenged him, Ford was so fixated on his idea that he probably would have ignored them. The Amazon (or, rather, his idea of the Amazon) represented a fresh start in an environment he considered uncorrupted by all that he saw blighting the American commercial landscape (like unions). Ford believed his will, capital and expertise could mold the world and was either ignorant of, or dismissed, 'the emotions of nationalism and deaf to the grievances of history.' For starters, humidity, rainfall, dense forest and bugs proved to be severe challenges for managers used to less extreme conditions in the American Upper Midwest. Fretting endlessly over finding a factory whistle that would not rust in the jungle, they remained dangerously clueless about the culture they had invaded. As one local priest astutely observed, the Ford men 'never really figured out what country they were in.' The inevitable came in December 1930, when a manager changed the way food was served to workers: he may have considered the change trivial, but the workers rioted and reduced Fordlandia to rubble. Today the site of Ford's dream town is a ghost city, decayed and overgrown, along the still-wild Tapajós."—John McFarland, Shelf Awareness

"Henry Ford once bestrode the Western world like a colossus, a wizard mechanic whose major invention was not only the car that bore his name but the industrial system that made it all work. It was his genius to see everything whole: that workers, if you paid them enough, were also consumers; and that a factory could be a planet unto itself—raw materials in here, Model T's out there. There was a catch, of course. If River Rouge, the gigantic Ford plant, was best seen as a single machine, then it was possible to see the men inside it as mere cogs, which could be speeded up at whim. Fordism, as Greg Grandin points out, was closely related to Taylorism, the so-called science of time management . . . In the context of everything he had, was and did, Ford's decision to create a vast rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle was a blip so small that one recent biographer, Steven Watts in The People's Tycoon, devoted more than 600 pages to the man and his works without ever mentioning Fordlandia, the 'Forgotten Jungle City.' Grandin, however, sees the Fordlandia project as a sort of Michigan in miniature . . . Grandin astutely suggests that Ford, having been stalled on a grandiose (and brilliant) plan to tame the Tennessee River, ridiculed for his beliefs (which included an unchanging line of cars) and excoriated for his anti-Semitism, saw the Amazon as a refuge, someplace he could do things his way, untrammeled by politicians and Wall Street. Well, it was his money, wasn't it? . . . Grandin suggests that the tale he has told is the story of capitalism run amok. It is, and that's interesting. But as I read it, his tale is also one of stupidity and blundering by powerful men who valued loyalty above competence. And that, it seems to me, is a story with peculiar relevance to America in the 21st century."—David L. Beck, St. Petersburg Times

"Those who talk of American cultural imperialism in the contemporary world should consider Fordlandia, the subject of the book of the same name by historian Greg Grandin. It tells the story of Henry Ford's 1927 purchase—for the purpose of growing rubber for tires—of a piece of Brazilian jungle twice the size of Delaware. He nonetheless tried to run it like it was Michigan, complete with Prohibition, golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands and time clocks. The settlement, which was finally turned over to the Brazilian government in 1945, naturally refused to become a floating fragment of Midwestern Puritanism, and flourished for a while as a wild tropical boomtown not at all congenial to its creator-god. The story, in a gifted writer's hands, is an epic cultural clash, now almost entirely forgotten."—Brian Bethune, Macleans

"Magic happens when a gifted historian and master storyteller finds a treasure trove of untapped materials to exploit. And Greg Grandin's book on Fordlandia is simply magical. Here is the truly epic tale of American adventurers dispatched by Henry Ford in 1928 to conquer and civilize the Amazon by constructing an industrial/agricultural utopia the size of Tennessee. Among the dozens of reasons I will be recommending Fordlandia to friends, family, colleagues, and students is the scale and pace of the narrative, the remarkable cast of characters, the brilliantly detailed descriptions of the Brazilian jungle, and what may be the best portrait we have of Henry Ford in his final years as he struggles to recapture control of the mighty forces he has unleashed."—David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Andrew Carnegie

"Stranger than fiction but with power of a first-rate novel to probe for the deepest truths, Fordlandia is an extraordinary story of American hubris. Out of the Amazon jungle, Greg Grandin brings us an unforgettable tale about the tragic limitations of a capitalist utopia."—Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace

"Greg Grandin's Fordlandia brings to light a fascinating but little known episode in the long history of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. The auto magnate's experiment with a vast rubber plantation in the Brazilian jungle involved not only economic and ecological issues of the greatest importance, but a cultural crusade to export the American Way of Life. Grandin's penetrating, provocative analysis raises important questions about the complex impulses driving the global expansion of modern capitalism."—Steven Watts, author of The Peoples Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century

"In 1927, Henry Ford was the richest man in the world—so when he needed cheap rubber, he simply bought a Brazilian rainforest and set about turning his little corner of the Amazon into a model American town. In this lively history, Greg Grandin enlists a cast of union-busting thugs, a Norwegian sea captain, and a cranky botanist to tell the story of the short-lived Fordlandia plantation. More than just a company town, Fordlandia was an ambitious feat of sociological engineering. Indigenous workers lived in cozy cottages straight out of the Midwest and Swiss-style bungalows. Alcohol was forbidden; instead the company provided wholesome fun in the form of square dances, swimming pools, a golf course, movies, and recreational driving in company cars. Though Ford paid his workers more than they would have earned harvesting rubber elsewhere and provided free health care and education, he wasn't motivated by altruism alone: Happy laborers, he reasoned, would be more efficient. In the end, caterpillars and blight took hold, the rubber trees refused to thrive, and by 1945, the experiment had completely collapsed. And so died Ford's utopian vision of profit-driven paternalism—a sentimental notion unrecognizable in an era of multinationals, slums, and sweatshops."—Lauren R. Rice, Mother Jones

"This story took me completely by surprise, and it defines the old cliché that the truth is stranger than fiction. Grandin has unearthed the tale of Henry Ford's ill-fated attempt to convert a stretch of the Brazilian Amazon into idyllic small-town America. Originally intended to save money on rubber, Ford's development turned into a grander and more twisted ambition, fueled by his position (and ego) as the richest man in the world. It is a masterful portrayal of capitalism and social paternalism unleashed to disastrous effect."—Nancy Bass Wyden, The Daily Beast

"In the 1920s, the idea that the most modern form of industrial production might easily transform an industry using the stone age technologies of a knife, a man and fire seemed like a foregone conclusion. Henry Ford aspired to make rubber plantations organized along the lines of his Rouge River plant as a way to shake the Amazon from its torpor and to directly supply the ever growing demand for rubber in the car business. But Ford found that his Midwestern dreams of rural industry, a diet based on whole grains and soybeans, and Midwestern virtue were elusive in his tropical utopia where human and plant diseases, endless screw-ups, a lack of labor discipline and even local rebellion soon unraveled his well laid plans. Millions of dollars later, like so many adventurers, his enterprise had failed spectacularly. Grandin places the Ford story within in a much broader social history of Amazonia, and rather than a saga of some novelty or the vanity of the rich, makes the resistance and the failure part of a larger Amazonian history rather than just the exotic ambitions of a man with too much money."—Susanna Hecht, Professor, School of Public Affairs and Institute of the Environment and co-author of Defenders of the Forest

"As a reader, I was fascinated by this account of Henry Ford's short-lived rainforest Utopia, complete with golf course and square dances. As a writer, I envy Greg Grandin for finding such an intriguing subject—whose decline and fall has an eerie resonance at our own historical moment today."—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost

"For all his grand accomplishments, Henry Ford had equally spectacular boondoggles. Historian Greg Grandin brilliantly recounts Ford's failed experiments in building a utopian community deep in the Amazon Basin. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress

"Henry Ford's doomed attempt to establish a rubber industry and an attendant 'work of civilization' in the rain forests of Brazil. The rising price of rubber and a threatened British-led cartel inspired the famously independent Henry Ford in 1927 to purchase a Connecticut-sized plot of land for the purpose of growing his own. The South American leaf blight and the advent of synthetic rubbers forced the company to abandon Fordlandia in 1945, long after Ford had poured millions of dollars and years of strenuous effort into the project. So why did he persist? Grandin convincingly argues that, for Ford, the enterprise was more than a purely economic venture. It was a missionary application of Ford-style capitalism—high wages, humane benefits, moral improvement—to a backward land. Ford's belief that he could harmonize industry and agriculture was always at war with the forces he had unleashed in the United States—mass-produced, affordable cars that encouraged mobility and fear induced in workers by hired thugs like Harry Bennett, who assured that the company would remain nonunion. With his vision of an industrial arcadia slipping away at home—due to what Grandin acutely terms 'a blithe indifference to difference'—Ford attempted to construct in the Amazon a world he had helped obliterate in America. The author follows a succession of Ford representatives and managers overwhelmed by the challenges of doing business where the implacable terrain, jungle diseases, mounting costs, floundering construction, government bumbling and worker resistance all conspired to sink the project. The plantation's original motive, to grow rubber, gave way to an unsustainable sociological experiment, which despite its amenities—weekly dances, movies, tennis courts, garden clubs, schools and hospitals-made no economic sense and became a mockery of the Ford Motor Company's reputation for orderliness, efficiency and synchronization. Works both as a nice bit of recovered history and a parable."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt



January 9, 1928: Henry Ford was in a spirited mood as he toured the Ford Industrial Exhibit with his son, Edsel, and his aging friend Thomas Edison, feigning fright at the flash...

About the author

Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, Empire's Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and the award-winning The Blood of Guatemala. An associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and a Guggenheim fellow, Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New York Times.

David Barreda

Greg Grandin

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