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'Fordlandia': An Automaker's Failed Jungle Utopia

Given GPS systems in our cars and Google Earth maps on our personal computers, it seems like there isn't a square inch left on this planet that hasn't been surveyed. But, even if the world's remotest regions have been charted, there are stories about those places that remain unexplored. That's the thrill that historian Greg Grandin's new book, Fordlandia gives a reader: The all-too-rare thrill of discovery. Or, I guess I should say "rediscovery," because, once upon a time, most Americans had heard something in the newspaper or on newsreels about Henry Ford's attempt, in the late 1920s, to build a version of Main Street, USA deep in the Amazon jungle of Brazil.

Ford's all-American town — with its Cape Cod cottages and red fire hydrants, its hospital, swimming pools and golf course — gradually gave way to the encroaching vines, vipers and damp of the Amazon. In 2005, when Grandin first visited the ruins of Fordlandia — still an 18-hour journey by riverboat from the nearest provincial city — a few elderly residents still remained who remembered the gleaming city that was, and they spoke glowingly of Mr. Ford and his vision.

Grandin is both an academic authority on Central and South America and a compelling story-teller: He's written a fascinating narrative history, not only of Fordlandia, but also of Henry Ford's later career, when the nightmarish aspects of the assembly line revolution that he'd created bedeviled him.

As Grandin tells it, the "official story" behind the founding of Fordlandia was commercial: Henry Ford wanted to grow rubber trees to supply tires for the cars his plants were churning out. But that was the rational excuse for a project that was much more utopian in its ambitions.

Ford, then in his 60s, had begun to look backward in the 1920s to a pre-industrial Golden Age in America. The mechanized horrors of World War I and, later, troubles on the home front — particularly the rise of his bitter foe, Franklin Roosevelt, and the backlash he'd begun to receive for his anti-Semitic tirades — had deeply unnerved him.

Grandin traces how Ford began escaping into the past by collecting antiques and founding rustic villages in Michigan that evoked the farm community of his childhood. When Brazilian officials dangled land in front of Ford, he saw a chance to begin the world anew. In 1927, Ford snapped up a parcel in the Amazon basin roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. For the next decade or so the father of standardized parts and sparkling factory cleanliness lost millions in an epic battle with the chaos that is the Amazon jungle.

Grandin says that "the first years of the settlement were plagued by waste, violence and vice, making Fordlandia more Deadwood than Our Town." Indeed, the stories he tells of Ford men in their ties and white linen suits "going native" are, well, just wild. In 1929, for instance, a trusted employee dispatched into the jungle to gather rubber seeds wound up ignoring Ford's prohibition against alcohol, getting semi-permanently drunk, and proceeding to go around baptizing cows and pigs with bottles of perfume he'd gotten from a trading post, reportedly intoning this benediction: "Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good too."

Especially interesting is Grandin's account of the native laborers' resistance to the strictures of industrial time. Whistles and time clocks were foreign to workers who measured time by the sun and seasons. As one Ford official complained, it was difficult "to make 365-day machines out of these people."

After a riot destroyed the first settlement, order was imposed and a Disneyfied town took shape in the jungle with 400 clapboard houses, shops and an open-air dance hall where wholesome minuets and polkas prevailed — Ford disapproved of the "sex dancing" that was then sweeping America.

Fordlandia, Grandin explains, never quite succeeded: Leaf blight and insects decimated the closely-planted rubber trees and, perhaps of special insult to the virulently anti-union Ford, the rubber plantation workers successfully unionized themselves in 1939, years before the UAW negotiated a contract with his River Rouge plant in Michigan. One final historical irony that Grandin excavates is that in 1941, Ford even gave tacit permission to FDR's Committee on Political refugees to resettle European Jews at the failing Fordlandia. Like the overriding plan of escape that inspired Fordlandia, nothing ever came of it.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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