Why did Henry Ford build a city in the Amazon?

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. Our topic today is Fordlandia, which is Henry Ford's failed attempt at this utopian company town in the middle of the Amazon. The idea sounds good enough. There are going to be neat suburban homes, and swimming pools, and doctors, and wholesome Detroit-style food.

Katie Lambert: Ew. I don't know about that part.

Sarah Dowdey: Just roll with me here for a minute. Time clocks, that sort of thing. There will not be malaria, knife fights, wasted money, or caterpillars.

Katie Lambert: Clearly.

Sarah Dowdey: But guess what. It does not work out at all.

Katie Lambert: This was a suggestion that Candace had given us a few months back after press coverage for Greg Grandin's book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, came out. There was a lot of good information we were able to pull from reviews and such, but we still haven't gotten our hands on a copy to read the entire thing.

Sarah Dowdey: I actually put my name on the waiting list at the library, so fingers crossed. The book did really well, so I'm hoping that the next step for this Fordlandia reliving will be a musical, and if someone listens to this podcast and then goes and writes a musical, I want to get some tickets to that, please.

Katie Lambert: Sarah has a pitch for an opening chorus, so if you're good and listen to the whole podcast, she just might sing it at the end. We'll see how it goes. First we're going to give you a little bit of background on the man behind Fordlandia: Henry Ford. By the 1920s, Henry Ford had been in the motorcar business for decades. He's established his moving assembly line. He's rolled out the Model T and even the Model A. He's revolutionized the industrial working world with his labor theories: the $5.00 work day, the 40-hour work week, profit sharing. He's also dabbled in the idea of model communities, which is probably a natural extension for someone who's so interested in model factories.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely. According to an article by Wayne Curtis, so far this dabbling in model communities has gone pretty well. He's set up a small logging village in northern Michigan, and that's worked out fine. He's stocked them with everything a working man could want. There are rec centers, schools for the kids, churches, but by the late 1920s, Ford is still feeling a little discouraged despite all these accomplishments. World War I has sort of shaken him up a little bit, and people aren't so crazy about all his anti-Semitic views.

Katie Lambert: Imagine.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And he's an older guy now too. He's in his 60s, and he's starting to look back to his own rustic, sort of rural past and feel a little nostalgia for it.

Katie Lambert: So when he has a business opportunity to establish his own rubber production company in Brazil, he jumps at the chance. He has this challenge now of creating a model community around this. think of how impressive that would be, taming the Amazon into this series of paved suburban streets - I'm speaking as Henry Ford here, not as myself - and creating a society that's connected to global industry but still small and quaint enough to grow its own vegetables, raise its own animals, to be its own little place.

Sarah Dowdey: Homey.

Katie Lambert: Yes.

Sarah Dowdey: A U.S. diplomat actually calls it like it is. He says, "Mr. Ford considers the project a work of civilization," so it's not just a business prospect. It's really this whole utopian idea, but we have to wonder first. Why rubber? Why the Amazon? To understand that, we need to go back a little bit into the 19th century.

Katie Lambert: And talk about some robber barons. Rubber trees are native to the Amazon, and when rubber became a global commodity in the 19th century, some people became very, very rich. But then Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled out sacks of seeds, and eventually, people discovered that rubber actually grew a lot better in Southeast Asia where none of its natural predators lived. Because there aren't natural predators, you can establish huge plantations full of rubber trees that produce a consistent product, unlike South American rubber, which was still collected from wild trees. So the robber barons of South America are just out of luck.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Also, according to Robert Santos's The Economic History of the Amazon, British and American companies were already sort of looking to get rubber production out of Brazil, partly because anti-slavery campaigners were not a fan of South American labor conditions. Decades later, Ford is concerned about this Asian corner that's developed on the rubber market, and he has to have rubber for his car tires. He can't really afford to mess around, have this one major source of rubber somehow be cut off to him.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. He doesn't want to ship it from halfway around the world.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. If it can be grown in South America, he would rather import it from South America than Asia. So he gets the idea that if he established his own rubber plantation in South America, he wouldn't have to worry about any of the outside factors. He would own it. He could control the costs, and he could ensure that the industry won't be monopolized.

Katie Lambert: That brings me to my favorite line in Sarah's outline. "But he'll do it his way: the Ford way."

Sarah Dowdey: Which makes us both say "Ford tough."

Katie Lambert: He's not the first guy to have thought of American-controlled rubber production. Back in 1923, the U.S. government had started looking into the rubber resources of South and Central America. A University of Michigan botanist, Carl LeRue, flags a spot in Brazil near where the Tapajos River feeds into the Amazon. By 1927, Ford has chosen this spot as his own and has arranged a deal with the Brazilian government: 2.5 million acres of land plus police protection and duty-free imports of supplies in exchange for 9 percent of the plantation's profits after 12 years.

Sarah Dowdey: In 1928, the supplies from Dearborn start heading south, so the plan is action. Four months later, we have a steamer and a barge arrive with this pile driver, a steam shovel, tractors, a locomotive, prefab buildings, parts for a sawmill, basically everything that you would need to set up a suburban company town.

Katie Lambert: Parade of machines.

Sarah Dowdey: Except that it's in the Amazon. Basically, it's a company on a boat, Companhia Industrial do Brasil, which is going to be Ford Motor Company's rubber harvesting division.

Katie Lambert: And that's how a spot named Boa Vista becomes Fordlandia. The intention, or the plan, is to employ 25,000 people, house 100,000, and export 6 million tons of rubber a year. So let's see how it goes.

Sarah Dowdey: It doesn't take that long to actually set up the town. The town is going to be run by managers imported from Michigan, and native workers will be the ones who are collecting the rubber and doing other tasks that are related to running the whole city, the whole model city. The native workers are pretty interested by this job because Ford pays wages that are double to what they're used to receiving, plus you get housing, and medical care, and food. It sounds nice enough.

Katie Lambert: The houses look very cute situated on neat little streets with lawns that have power lines run by a diesel generator. The workers have access to well water from spigots while the white-collar and U.S. Workers have running water inside. There are several schools. There are swimming pools, these Michigan-made fire hydrants, and the villa Brasileira part of town has tailors, shops, restaurants, shoe makers, a butcher, a baker - not sure about the candlestick maker - but they're all subsidized. Working mothers have a nursery or a baby clinic. As far as health goes, if you die, you get a paid funeral with a U.S.-made coffin.

Sarah Dowdey: I'm kind of imagining that on their promotional brochures. "If you die..."

Katie Lambert: "Baby clinics. Coffins."

Sarah Dowdey: But there are issues. The main issue is just ignoring the customs of the people, ignoring the climate, ignoring how work is done in the Amazon.

Katie Lambert: Ignorance in general.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. It reminded me of when we talked about the Jamestown settlers who are trying to live in North America like it's old England and making fatal mistakes. So we have fatal mistakes made here too. We're going to start with housing. The traditional form of housing in this area is well-suited to the heat and humidity of the Amazon. You have cool dirt floors and thatched roofs, but the new style in Fordlandia is cute little Swiss cottages, Cape Cod style model homes, all with asbestos-insulated metal roofs - so you can see where this is going to go with an insulated metal roof under the Amazon sun. One employee calls them galvanized iron bake ovens. A Harper's reporter said, "Mr. Ford and Brazil are somewhat in disagreement in matters of doors, screening, and heights of ceilings." The houses are not to most people's suiting. The indoor bathrooms gross out the workers. They don't like having that all in the house. This is an immediate problem for making Fordlandia work.

Katie Lambert: The rubber harvesting doesn't go well either. Again, the traditional way, workers lived kind of spaced out, and they would harvest their latex and get paid by the pound, so for what they actually accomplished. The Ford way, workers lived in suburbia. They go to work every day, and this requires them to keep track of their hours, how long they've been there as opposed to what they actually produce. There's this Flintstone's style whistle that's mounted on top of the water tower that can be heard seven miles away. It signals meals, the start and end of every work day, and it gets even worse than that because these old time-management systems don't mesh well.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. The old way is to use the sun and the seasons as your clock and calendar. When you're harvesting rubber, obviously you work at the coolest parts of the day, so you work at dawn. You work at dusk. You don't work from 6:00 to 3:00, which is going to be the Ford schedule. The new way is also - we have the whistle we just mentioned - but also, punch clocks, like it's Crate & Barrel. I know that from experience. You'd have to swing by the main building on the way to the fields even if it meant a detour just to punch in this clock. To make things even more ridiculous, we're running on Detroit time because this is Ford, and we have to.

Katie Lambert: The boss is different too, so our plantation managers of old may have paid terrible wages and worked you entirely too hard, but it was the sort of paternal system where your boss might also stand as godfather to your children. The new way is very hands off. Ford never visits Fordlandia, let alone the entire country of Brazil, which must have been demoralizing to people who weren't used to that kind of management.

Sarah Dowdey: Even the Michigan managers. That would be, I think, demoralizing if you had moved your whole family all the way down to Fordlandia and your boss never sets foot in the country.

Katie Lambert: It would be isolated.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely isolating. So an additional thing - it sounds like of minor, but just think about if this were your life and you were in the Amazon all the time - entertainment. The old way would be native dances, native songs, that kind of thing. The new way -

Katie Lambert: This is my favorite part.

Sarah Dowdey: We have sing-alongs, poetry readings, mandatory square dancing, which sounds like a nightmare.

Katie Lambert: I'm sorry. Do-si-do.

Sarah Dowdey: Just as a note, this is the 1920s and 1930s, so square dancing isn't really the North American norm. I know it sounds like a long time ago, but Ford likes this old-fashioned style of dancing. He likes polkas, and that sort of thing.

Katie Lambert: Shouldn't we be doing the Charleston or something?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He's not into the sexier dances that are sweeping the nation.

Katie Lambert: Again, Charles Morrow Wilson writes in Harper's, "The natives did not choose to square dance on the village green, or to sing the quaint folk songs of merry England, or to treasure Longfellow."

Sarah Dowdey: You can imagine if you've just worked a 6:00 to 3:00 shift, maybe the last thing you would want to do is listen to some Longfellow on the village green.

Katie Lambert: I think you would have to force the people to square dance because they don't know why you would want to otherwise. Another entertainment issue, remember that these are model communities, so there will be no drinking.

Sarah Dowdey: No one really pays attention to that one. The native workers immediately buy their stuff from riverboats that come up on payday. According to Grandin, the white linen suit guys who are trusted to go gather seeds from the jungle, would actually binge on the alcohol and get so wasted that they would start baptizing farm animals with perfume. Maybe they just had too much fun square dancing. I don't know.

Katie Lambert: The most problematic is with food. The old way, of course, was eating traditional foods with traditional service. In Ford's vision, everyone eats in a mess hall that's incredibly hot inside and only serves Detroit food: wheat bread, oatmeal, and canned Michigan peaches.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is as Georgians? Come on. Canned Michigan peaches. The visiting writer, Charles Morrow Wilson again, writes, "A workman's mess hall was set up, but native workers did not like the wholesome Detroit style cooking and complained bitterly of indigestion. North American fare in the jungle no more pleases the customers than a quick change to Amazon fare would please you or me." The major problem though with the whole food scene is when they cut waiter service to save money, and make the whole dining hall cafeteria style.

Katie Lambert: Ew. A buffet.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. So the workers, for one thing, aren't used to cafeteria-style food. They're not used to waiting in line. Again, you're working in the sun all day, and then you have to stand in line for your lunch. The result of this change is a riot. We have one worker saying, "I'm a worker, not a waiter." Workers ransacked the dining hall. They drive trucks into the river. They smash windows, and wrecked the saw mill, and the radio station, and the time clock, of course.

Katie Lambert: Symbolic.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. American managers are panicking. Some seek cover in the jungle. Some go out onto a boat that's tied up and just wait it out. It's a bad sign if the change to cafeteria-style dining sets off a riot. I think you have a major problem.

Katie Lambert: Our most damning issue, however, is the rubber itself. Our old way of growing rubber and harvesting rubber was to gather it from wild trees that grew spaced out in clumps, and the space provided some protection from pests while these clumps provide protection from heat. Ford's vision is to plant 1.4 million trees in neat rows because that's how factory supervisors like things. The problem is that when you do that, it attracts leaf blight, fungi, and pests like caterpillars.

Sarah Dowdey: Plus leaving the trees completely exposed to the elements. The rubber production, which is the whole mission of this, is completely ridiculous. It does not work at all.

Katie Lambert: Even if they'd been smarter about cultivating the rubber, the terrain of Fordlandia is terrible, as is the climate. The soil erodes. It's incredibly hot and humid, which is too much for our Michigan managers. When it rains, the water collects in low spots, which leads to epidemics of malaria. When it doesn't rain, we have a dry season from July to November where the waters of the river drop to 40 feet and the boats can't come in. It's not just the mosquitoes. We've also got ants and moths plaguing our people.

Sarah Dowdey: And we have violence too. This isn't just a bad camp scenario. We have things like knife fights going on, especially in the early days, but also later with the cafeteria riot - and a protest over the employment of workers from Barbados, who the native workers were upset that these imported workers were getting higher wages. Ford finally realizes that he picked the wrong spot.

Katie Lambert: He admits defeat.

Sarah Dowdey: He kind of doesn't admit defeat though because in 1934, he trades part of his original concession for 703,750 acres to the north and sets up yet another model town, which is going to be an improved version of Fordlandia, called Belterra.

Katie Lambert: I hope there's not quite so much square dancing. There are some improvements, like a manager who makes square dancing optional, and some lessons learned. Ford is will ing to erect a Catholic Church immediately, which is something he was opposed to doing in Fordlandia. We've got doctors who are working to eradicate malaria with quinine, but this is still no dream city, and certainly not for Ford when our Amazon workers unionize in 1939.

Sarah Dowdey: Seriously. I was kind of blown away by that fact, unionizing the Amazon works in 1939. But unlike Fordlandia, we do get some crops out of Belterra. Amazing! They're pretty pitiful though. In 1942, there was a crop yield of 750 tons of latex, which are from Asian tree grafts which are less susceptible to all these pests. Ford had hoped, though, for 38,000 tons annually. Clearly, we're falling far short of that goal.

Katie Lambert: Harvests of other crops, like eucalyptus, teak, and balsa are also small due to strict regulations of timber exports, and some are used to trim Ford Lincolns.

Sarah Dowdey: So that's a little memento, I guess, from Belterra for anyone who has one of those. But they have a few other random things too: cinnamon, ginger, coffee, tea. Still, nothing much comes from it. Belterra is not a particularly productive town. The war, World War II, is really hard on the city because German subs actually stopped supply ships from reaching the city. You can imagine suddenly you're relying on your little gardens. It would be tough times without your Michigan tinned peaches.

Katie Lambert: It's finally all over by 1945. In December of that year, officials at the Ford Motor Company announce, "Our war experience taught us that synthetic rubber is superior to natural rubber for certain of our products." They would return the concession to Brazil for $250,000.00 and that's it.

Sarah Dowdey: It makes us wonder how much did this whole thing cost? It has to have been fortune. It was. Ford Motor Company says it cost about $20 million. Then a few years later, documents came out that showed it was more like $25 million. Some historians put it at as much as $30 million, so clearly a huge waste of money.

Katie Lambert: It may have been a waste of money, but at least we've got some cool ghost towns out of it. They're still there today. It'll take you about 18 hours on a riverboat to get there, but you can look up some pictures and Google images. They're pretty spooky. I think there's been some talk about reviving Belterra, but not so much Fordlandia.

Sarah Dowdey: Fordlandia is a lost cause still, apparently.

Katie Lambert: I know I promised that Sarah might sing a song at the end of this podcast, but she's actually losing her voice. Instead, we're going to recite what we think would make a lovely introduction to the Fordlandia musical that you're going to write for us.

Sarah Dowdey: We'll try to be emphatic about it though.

Katie Lambert: Are you ready?

Sarah Dowdey: I'm ready.[In unison]: Fordlandia, Fordlandia, eat your oats and don't die of malaria.

Katie Lambert: And that is our final word on Fordlandia. That brings us to listener mail. Our email today is from listener Marcella who wrote about our Mata Hari podcast. She said, "My great grand uncle was a reasonably famous Guatemalan writer at the turn of the 20th century. His name was Enrique Gomez Carrillo, and he was the Guatemalan council in Paris from 1899 onwards. He was a notorious womanizer, and family legend has it that one of his various lovers was Mata Hari herself. He wrote a book about her. Whether he was involved with Mata Hari or not is on the level of speculation. "He was accused of being responsible for bringing her to the French authorities and deceiving her into returning to Paris where the French detained her. In fact, the book he wrote about her was supposed to be Enrique's attempt to disassociate himself with the whole case. "Enrique's last wife was also somewhat well-known, Consuelos Suncin de Saint Exupery, later wife of Antoine de Saint Exupery, who of course, is the author of The Little Prince." Thanks for writing to us, Marcella.

Sarah Dowdey: I think she also mentioned that he's buried in Pere Lachaise too.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is, of course, where Oscar Wilde ended up.

Katie Lambert: If you have any cool family stories to sen d us, we're at HistoryPodcast@HowStufWorks.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory, or join our Facebook fan page to see what we're up to. We recently posted a photo of some of the cool mail we've gotten. Be sure to check it out. Our home page is www.HowStuffWorks.com if you'd like to search for some great history articles.

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