The Henry Ford

Explore Henry Ford's ill-fated attempt to bring cheap rubber to his own industry--and to bring a Utopian society to the Amazonian basin in Brazil.

In 1927, Henry Ford acquired 2.5 million acres of land along the Tapajós River in the state of Para, Brazil, with the intention of establishing a rubber plantation.

Both Henry Ford and his friend, Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, needed rubber to manufacture their products, and worried that depending on other countries and companies for their supply might drive up the price.

In fact, the pair were so interested in finding a source of affordable rubber that they had subsidized Thomas Edison's experiments to find a new source of rubber using native American plants.

Ford's dream of a stable and inexpensive supply of rubber from his Brazilian plantation, soon known as Fordlandia, faced challenges from the very start.

Land was cleared by felling trees and then setting them alight--but this work was done during Brazil's rainy season, requiring extra fuel to start the fires and resulting in huge plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles.

Huge native trees were taken down to clear the land.

Henry Ford believed strongly in making the most of every resource and reducing waste in manufacturing where ever possible. He brought this mindset to Fordlandia through the collection and analysis of tree bark and wood pulp from his land.

Ford tried to sell Brazilian lumber into the United States market, issuing sophisticated brochures that emphasized the beauty, utility, and exotic nature of these woods.

The sawmill at Fordlandia never turned out to be the profit center Ford hoped it might be. Even beyond the economic challenges of the Great Depression, trees of the same species were not located together but scattered through the jungle, making harvest cost-prohibitive, and many were not appropriate for milling.

The Tapajós River, which branches off from the Amazon, rises and falls several feet between the dry and rainy seasons. Fordlandia accommodated this variation with a movable dock, but other hazards included "floating islands," which could trap ships.

Keeping harmful insects away from the rubber trees was a constant battle.

The rubber trees had been planted too close together, and despite aggressive spraying, insect infestations spread quickly as the trees' leaf canopies grew together.

In fact, by planting the rubber trees so closely together, the Ford executives who ran Fordlandia lost Brazilian rubber's native advantage of pest- and blight-resistant trees.

Trees planted on steep slopes were also prone to damage from wind, scorching sun, and soil erosion.

Even as Fordlandia struggled to break even, much less turn a profit, Ford Motor Company publicized its own efforts to produce rubber (and other materials) in venues such as the 1934 Chicago World's Fair.

Ford's focus gradually shifted from seeing his Brazilian adventure as an economic enterprise to a sociological one (in keeping with his lifelong interest): providing infrastructure to positively change the lives of the native workers and their families.

As a result, Fordlandia looked and worked a lot like a Midwestern-style Everytown in the Amazon basin.

However, Ford's indigenous workers resented attempts to change their behavior, such as mandating standard 8-hour days (requiring work in the hottest part of the day), and forbidding alcohol.

Eventually, these dissatisfactions boiled over, and a riot caused Ford overseers to flee Fordlandia for several days. The timeclock served as the physical and symbolic locus of the workers' rage. Things remained tense when the Americans returned.

Ford also had issues finding trustworthy staff from the States. Many of his managers were transplants from Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, or its logging outposts in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The Americans grew quickly bored in the jungle, and pursued hobbies such as hunting.

A golf course was also built as another attempt to alleviate boredom.

Henry Ford's Midwestern staff tended to bring with them a confidence that even without expertise in botany or the ecosystem of the Amazon, producing industrial quantities of rubber was a problem they could figure out.

Over close to two decades, many Fordlandia workers, both Brazilians and Ford Motor Company US transplants, lost their lives to the hazards of the jungle.

In the mid-1930s, Ford established a second rubber plantation, Belterra, about 70 miles from Fordlandia. Having learned lessons from the first attempt, social engineering was eased at the new plantation, and experts were brought in. Some new and promising methods of propagation, such as grafting, were investigated.

But despite this positive momentum, things were changing. The 1940s brought the end of World War II, the creation of synthetic rubber, and a shift away from vertical integration.

In addition, Henry Ford's health was declining. In 1945, his grandson Henry Ford II took the helm as president of Ford Motor Company.

Just over six weeks after becoming president of Ford, Henry Ford II sold Fordlandia and Belterra back to the Brazilian government for a fraction of the land's estimated value.

In 1947, Henry Ford died, his passion project having resulted in neither a stable source of rubber nor a Utopian community in Fordlandia.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

For more related artifacts on Fordlandia or Belterra, visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections.

Thanks to author Greg Grandin for his excellent book Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, which provides much more information about the whole enterprise, and draws on many of the source materials of The Henry Ford, among others.

Credits: All media
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