People still live in Henry Ford’s failed jungle utopia

Henry Ford was a man with a lot of dreams, though some of those dreams didn’t exactly pan out. Case in point, the creepily named Fordlândia in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

The New York Times reminded us of one of our favorite pieces of automotive history this morning with an in-depth look at what happened when the Ford Motor Company tried to create a rubber plantation. The sordid tale began in 1928, when Ford founded the town in the heart of the Amazon in an attempt to grow and harvest the rubber needed for his cars. Ford was famous for wanting control over each step of the car building process. He also feared a European monopoly on rubber after Brazilian rubber trees made their way to plantations in several tropical, British-held colonies.

Ford, always disdainful of ‘expert advice’, built a midwestern town in the jungle, complete with red fire hydrants and bungalows designed in Michigan. He even brought in Albert Khan, the architect responsible for Detroit’s art deco skyscrapers and grandest homes, to design the hospital. In his mind’s eye he saw rubber trees stretching into the distance, serviced by Brazilians living a clean, American-style life. Ford also saw Fordlândia as another chance to enforce his own moral code. Ford banned alcohol in his jungle kingdom. His infamous Sociology Department — goons who investigated Ford’s Detroit employees to ensure their private lives met their employer’s expectations — became the sanitation squads. These squads would clear the town of standing water to prevent malaria, but also check workers for venereal disease.

Unsurprisingly, the substandard and diseased rubber trees failed and the workers rioted after living on oatmeal and canned peaches for weeks on end. Ford handed control of the town over to the Brazilian government after WWII. Today almost 2,000 people live in the crumbling ruins of Fordlândia, squatting in American-style homes in the heart of the Amazon. Guilherme Lisboa, the owner of a small inn in Fordlândia, perfectly summed to Ford’s legacy to the Times.

“It turns out Detroit isn’t the only place where Ford produced ruins.”

For more on Fordlândia, we recommend Greg Grandin’s book that documents Ford’s strange undertaking.

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