Fordlandia

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.

By The Henry Ford

"Companhia Ford do Brasil, Fordlandia Estate Map," 1936 (1936-05-06) by Ford Motor CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Harvey Firestone Checking a Tire on "Vagabonds" Camping Trip, 1923 (1923) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Thomas Edison Experimenting with Goldenrod as an Alternative Source of Rubber, Florida, 1929 (1929-05-26)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Jorge Villares with Work Crew, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1928 (1928-05-04) by Oxholm, Einar, 1893?-1956Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Burning 1000 Acres, Boa Vista, Brazil, 1933 (1933-08-26)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Felling a Favina Branca with Hand Axes, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931 (1931) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Huge native trees were taken down to clear the land.

Workers with Fallen Favina Branca Stump, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931 (1931) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Tree Bark and Wood Pulp Samples from Brazil, Sample #3, X, 1925-1928, 1925/1928, Original Source: Digital Collections
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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.

Tree Bark and Wood Pulp Samples from Brazil, Sample #2, Timbo Titica, 1925-1928, 1925/1928, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Tree Bark and Wood Pulp Samples from Brazil, Sample #7, Tatijuba, 1925-1928, 1925/1928, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Tree Bark and Wood Pulp Samples from Brazil, Sample #15, 1925-1928, 1925/1928, Original Source: Digital Collections
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"A Dependable Supply of Distinctive Brazilian Hardwoods," circa 1933 (1932/1934) by Ford Motor CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Sawmill and Power House at Boa Vista, later Fordlandia, Brazil, 1932 (1932)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Stranded Tug "Santarem" Caught in Floating River-Grass Island, Fordlandia, 1935 (1935) by Companhia Ford Industrial Do BrasilOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Report, "Insect Census of Fordlandia Including Control Measures", March 29, 1935 (1935-03-29) by Townsend, C.H.T.Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Men Dusting Nursery Plants Growing at Belterra, Brazil, circa 1935 (1933/1937)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Young Rubber Trees, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1936 (1936-09-21) by Companhia Ford Industrial Do BrasilOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Rubber Trees Growing on a Terraced Hillside at Fordlandia in Brazil, circa 1937 (1937/1938)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Rubber Production Diorama, Ford Exhibition Building, Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1934 (1934) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Employee Home with Garden at Belterra Rubber Plantation, Brazil, circa 1939 (1938/1940)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Fordlandia Houses on Riverside Avenue, Boa Vista, Brazil, 1933 (1933-05)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Workers Clearing the Jungle at Fordlandia, June 18, 1934 (1934-06-18) by Companhia Ford Industrial Do BrasilOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Fordlandia Time Clock, Destroyed in the Riot of December 1930 (1930-12-22)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Victor Perini Family Before Moving to Brazil from Iron Mountain, Michigan, 1930 (1930-02-19)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Ford Workers and Administrators Viewing a Sea Cow, or Manatee, at Fordlandia, circa 1931 (1930/1932)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Golf Course at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1941 (1940)Original Source: Digital Collections

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

Dr. and Mrs. Claude R. Smith with Collection of Jungle Fauna, Fordlandia, 1931 (1931) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Cemetery at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931 (1931-08-15) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Grafted Rubber Tree, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1940 (1940) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Aerial View of Fordlandia, Brazil, 1934 (1933/1934) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Henry Ford, Clara Ford and Henry Ford II at Gaukler Point, Michigan, April 1943 (1943-04) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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

Young Rubber Trees under First Tapping, Fordlandia Rubber Plantation, Brazil, 1936 (1936-12-18) by Companhia Ford Industrial Do BrasilOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Budding Rubber Tree Stumps at Belterra Plantation, Brazil, 1937 (1937-04-25) by Companhia Ford Industrial Do BrasilOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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