Ford's social experiment makes a good story

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2009 - 3:41 PM

The carmaker set up a major operation in the jungles of Brazil during the 1920s, with predictable results.

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

"Fordlandia?" a friend said, noting the book I was reading. Then she took in the subtitle, "The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City," and asked, "Is that real? Or is it made up?"

"Quite real," I told her, but immediately saw the inadequacy of that answer. As real as Fordlandia was, it was also very much a figment of the overheated imagination of an increasingly frustrated aging Henry Ford.

By the late 1920s, the mighty automotive magnate had begun to lose his grip on the forces he'd unleashed. His program for improving the masses through the dignity of work and higher wages had given way to the thuggish enforcement of ever-more exacting standards, not just on the factory floor, but even in his workers' homes and communities.

In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, Ford clung to his belief that man and machine, nature and industry, could -- and should -- fulfill one another. On this principle, he'd started village industries in the Midwest, most notably lumbering towns in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. And he'd tried to do the same in the Alabama town of Muscle Shoals. So it was, perhaps, not as surprising as it might seem that he should next export his vision of American pastoralism to the Amazon.

The pretext was the need for rubber. Conceived when latex was becoming more and more expensive, Ford's Amazonian rubber plantation actually began to take shape only after the price of latex had started to plummet. Thus Fordlandia emerges as more of a social experiment than an economic enterprise. And author Greg Grandin brings this aspect of the story into clear and fascinating focus. His account presents a sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious picture of the automaker's attempt to bring the light of American industry to the Amazonian heart of darkness; to transfer wholesale his vision of a working Midwestern town to the tropical interior of Brazil.

It's a foregone conclusion that Fordlandia doesn't work. And yet Grandin makes a wonderful story of the attempt. He locates the plantation within the context of Henry Ford's career and philosophy, and within the history of American industry and capitalism. But along the way he tells a marvelous tale of colorful characters, some outsize and some just plain pathetic, misadventures, and fortunes made and lost on scales grand and puny.

"Fordlandia" is, Grandin concedes, a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, "is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon, but that he believed the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained." And in Ford's ghost cities in the Amazon, "the factory whistle still blows four times a day, summoning workers who no longer live there to a plantation that has long been shuttered."

Ellen Akins, author of "Home Movie" and "Home Town Brew," lives in Cornucopia, Wis.

  • FORDLANDIA

    By: Greg Grandin.

    Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 432 pages, $27.50.

    Review: Henry Ford's attempt to establish a Midwestern-style company town in the jungles of Brazil ultimately failed. Greg Grandin's colorful and fascinating look at his efforts is a wonderful tale, and offers a lesson in arrogance.

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