Henry Ford was feeling mighty pleased with himself as he strutted round the exhibition in New York showcasing his brand new “Model A” car, accompanied by his son Edsel and his old friend Thomas Edison. And why not? It was 1928 and up to then half of all the cars ever produced in the world had been his phenomenally successful “Model T”. And there was every reason to believe that his new product would make him an even bigger fortune.
“How much are you worth?” asked a reporter as the magnate passed through the room? “I don’t know and I don’t give a damn,” Ford replied. But everyone knew that this son of an Irish immigrant farmer, was the world’s richest man. Ford was the first industrial celebrity and the forerunner of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, a rare breed of men with an almost magical power to transform technology. Back in 1908, Ford had calculated that it took 7,882 operations to build a car, a third of them simple enough to be done by “a one-legged man”. And so the world’s first production line was born, with 500 Model Ts rolling off every day “in any colour you like so long as it is black.”
But this was not the motor magnate’s only revolutionary idea. In 1914 he stunned America by paying his workers $5 a day for an eight hour shift, doubling the national average wage. Wall Street accused him of “class treason”. But the absentee and turnover rates in his factories plummeted and Ford joined the ranks of the world’s most admired men, celebrated as an enlightened employer and an “international symbol of the new industrialism”.
Yet there was one goal that the man who had everything had yet to achieve. Amid the flurry of excitement as journalists and competitors surged and jostled to inspect the glittering new “Model A”, it was easy to overlook an announcement buried away in the press release. The Ford Motor Company had just acquired an enormous tract of land in the Amazon jungle, which was to be used to grow rubber. Ford needed rubber to make tyres, hoses and gaskets for his cars. Latex trees do not grow in Michigan and the European producers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the rubber trade through their Asian colonies. So Ford decided to raise his own.
It was a crazy and doomed project from the start. The site chosen was 2.5 million acres of virgin jungle , the size of Connecticut, on the banks of the Tapajos river, 500 miles from the Atlantic – and it took the motor company’s agents 18 hours to get there from the nearest town. But in Ford’s mind this was to more than just a commercial enterprise. He wanted to build a settlement that would be a “civilising mission” – a little bit of Main Street in the middle of the jungle. The mogul decreed the construction of a model city straight out of New England, complete with Cape Cod-style bungalows, a state-of the art hospital, red fire hydrants, company cafeterias serving American-style food and cinema that showed American movies – with nightly square dancing, of which Ford greatly approved. (Although there would be “no bodily contact, except for the thumb and forefinger, which were to touch the woman’s waist as if holding a pencil”.)
The local workers would harvest scientifically selected latex seedlings under the supervision of American executives and be paid American wages. Ford didn’t just want to cultivate rubber, he wanted to cultivate human beings. With typical immodesty it was to be called “Fordlandia”
The story of this bizarre project is brilliantly told in a new book, by Greg Grandin, a New York historian (Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City). By this time in his sixties and growing ever more egotistical and eccentric, Ford saw his model city as a utopia uncorrupted, as he saw it, by unions, accountants, Jews and experts of any kind – all of which he found increasingly bothersome.
In his car plants he retained bouncers to “deal with” anyone who tried to organise a union, and managed to amass one of the world’s biggest fortunes without ever having his company accounts audited. Ford held well-known anti-semitic views, was an admirer of Hitler, for whom the feeling was mutual – Ford is the only American to get a mention in Mein Kampf. As for the experts, he despised them – to such a degree that, disastrously, he employed no-one to tell him that you couldn’t grow plantation rubber in the Brazilian jungle.
The ageing mogul was gripped by other obsessions, too, as the dividing line between genius and crank became ever more blurred. He hated cows, which reminded him of his boyhood on the farm, and he saw soya as the “food of the future” serving his dinner guests banquets in which course after course was made of soya, including soya croquettes, soya apple pie, soya ice cream and soya coffee. He even attempted to build a car from soya, but the project was quietly abandoned because of the noxious stink of formaldehyde.
Even so, he was welcomed by many Brazilians, who believed that the might of Henry Ford would be the salvation of the Amazon. But the first inklings of the disaster that was to unfold quickly became apparent. Exhaustion and sickness overcame Fordlandia’s first jungle-clearing crew, as they hacked into the dense dark wood with machetes and cutlasses. The men worked stripped to the waist in the hot sun and their bodies were quickly red raw with the bites of ticks jiggers, blackflies and ants. They lit vast fires from the trees, driving dangerous creatures such as boars, cougars and boa constrictors into the open. The mortality was high as men bending low to cut the undergrowth were bitten by snakes or suffered more lingering deaths from fever infection or dysentery.
Tired of the slow progress Ford sacked his first managers and brought in a Norwegian sea captain called Einar Oxholm, who knew nothing about the tropics or plantations, which suited his boss who disdained expertise. But even though he offered wages up to 35 per cent above the local average, the Brazilians didn’t want to stay. Why should they when the jungle was ripe with grapefruit, oranges, papay and lima beans ten times the size of those in Michigan? In any case, the jungle lacked a key ingredient in the Ford philosophy: anything to buy.
It was a long dangerous struggle. Before proper shelters were built, people were attacked by vampire bats in bed at night and babies were snatched from hammocks by jaguars. Oxholm’s maid bled to death after having her arm bitten off in the river by a caiman. Eventually, 5,000 people lived in and around the plantation, but far from the idea of a model village, a jungle shanty town grew up around the site, with filthy small cafes, gambling houses and bordellos. Riverboats pulled into Fordlandia’s dock and workers swarmed aboard to buy beer and cachaca, the local tipple. All this was horrifying to the puritanical and teetotal Ford, but managers were powerless to stop the debauchery. When they tried to drive out the local bars and bordellos, they simply re-established themselves on stilts over the water. Drunkenness and venereal disease were rampant.
Equally disastrous was the attempt to impose American-style timekeeping on locals who had always lived simply according to the seasons. Ever since discovering a flair for repairing them as a boy, Henry Ford had an obsession with clocks and watches. (“Every clock in the Ford home,” a neighbour once recalled, “shuddered when it saw him coming.”) One of the first moves in Fordlandia was to set the clocks to Detroit time. But managers found it a hopeless task to “make 365-day machines out of these people” and were forced to give up trying.
In fact any kind of industrial discipline at Fordlandia proved impossible. To keep them out of the bars and brothels, workers were forced to eat on the plantation with the cost deducted from their pay. It was bad enough for the Brazilians being required to eat the “Henry Ford diet”, consisting of oatmeal and tinned peaches for breakfast and unpolished rice and wholewheat bread for dinner. But when the waiter service in the canteen was withdrawn and they had to queue for self-service “it was like putting a match to gasoline”.
The crowd went on a rampage with knives, rocks, pipes, hammers, machetes and clubs. “Having demolished the dining hall,” Grandin writes, “they destroyed everything breakable within reach…They cut the lights to the rest of the plantation, smashed windows and dumped a truckload of meat in the river. The rioters then set their sights on the things most closely associated with Ford, destroying every truck, tractor and car on the plantation. They then turned to the time clocks, smashing them to bits.”
But it was caterpillars and fungi, not rioters, that sealed the fate of Fordlandia. Henry Ford’s obstinate refusal to take outside advice, and his determination to impose techniques better suited to car-building onto the diversity of the jungle, meant his trees were set too close together. Once the plants reached maturity, the canopies touched and the pests that were normally held back by the natural distribution of the trees in the wild went on their own rampage of destruction. The depressing sight of tree-tops stripped bare could be glimpsed for miles around.
The dream of Fordlandia was dead – a sorry tale of vanity, megalomania and misplaced idealism. Henry Ford never visited it nor did a single ounce of the rubber it produced ever find its way into a Ford car. The company finally abandoned the plant in 1945, selling it to the Brazilian government. Many of the workers were unaware the Americans were leaving until they saw their boat departing down the Tapajos. ”Goodbye, we’re going back to Michigan,” the wife of Fordlandia’s last manager told her nanny “They didn’t take anything,” the woman said. “They just left, like that.”
Today, most of the remains of Ford’s Folly are slowly being swallowed up by the jungle. The hospital and workshops, still containing some rusting “Model Ts”, are in ruins. But if you half-close your eyes you might spot the ghost of Henry Ford still walking among the traditional little clapboard houses that were an essential part of his vision. Some are still lived in by locals, who keep traditional flower gardens at the front – just as Ford required them to do all those years ago. And it is said that one of the best rooms in one of the nicest houses is still kept ready prepared “just in case Mr Ford comes to visit”.
Maybe his idea of an arcadia in the jungle wasn’t so bad after all.
‘Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin’ is published by Icon Books, price £14.99. Michael Williams’s new book, The Slow Train, is published by Random House in April.