Summer 2009

Rubber Baron

– Paul Maliszewski

Finding Henry Ford's lost city in Brazil.

In July 1925, Harvey Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Com­pany, traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, to have lunch with his friend Henry Ford. Firestone wanted the auto­maker to ally with him against the European rubber monopoly. Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for Great Britain’s colonies, had established a cartel to control production and sustain a higher price. Rubber was running $1.21 per pound in the United States, up from 20 cents three years before. But Ford, then in his early sixties and independent to the point of being isolated, saw no benefit in a part­ner­ship with Firestone. After their meal, he instructed his personal secretary, “Find out where is the best place to grow rubber.”

Ford’s decision launched his company on a 20-year, $20 million misadventure. While Firestone started a successful plantation in Liberia, Ford acted on his secretary’s advice and turned his attention to the jungles surrounding the lower Amazon. Until the late 19th century, Brazil had held a monopoly on rubber production. That was when Henry Wickham, a British citizen, stole 70,000 rubber-plant seeds from Brazil and handed them over to the Royal Botanic Gardens, where scientists nurtured seedlings that became the basis for a burgeoning rubber market in the British colonies of Southeast Asia. Wickham, who perhaps exag­gerated the ­derring-­do required to smuggle the seeds, nonetheless earned a knighthood and doomed the rubber trade in South ­America.

Ford wanted to accomplish more in the Ama­zon than just establish an affordable source of rubber. He was driven to carve his plantation out of the jungle by two beliefs: that the traditional American way of life could and should be exported to less developed countries, and that this same way of life was coming undone at home. He was, at once, a utopian dreamer and an embittered critic. His ­ill-­advised foray in Brazil is detailed in Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, an engaging and passionately written history that takes its title from the name Brazilians called Ford’s first settlement. Grandin is alert to the tragedy and the unexpected moments of comedy in the story, which is at times reminiscent of both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Though Grandin, a professor of Latin American history at New York University, occasionally muddles his tale with repetition and confusing chronology, he appears to have read every relevant document in the archives at the Benson Ford Research Center, the repository for Henry Ford’s papers and his company’s corporate ­records.

Fordlandia grew from the discarded blueprints of Ford’s 1922 plan to build on the banks of the Tennessee River a city as narrow as Manhattan but 75 miles long. Residents of the proposed city in northwestern Alabama would never be far from hills and farmland. Ford would offer ­low-­interest mortgages, pay high wages, build schools, and construct a ­shop-­lined road running from one end to the other. A magazine called it an “All Main Street” city. Ford just needed a land concession and the federal govern­ment’s approval. Since the recession of 1920, which would prove to be a harbinger of the Great Depression, Ford had devoted some of his time and wealth to a “village industry” program, an attempt to generate year-round employment in rural communities and, as Grandin writes, “reconcile farm and factory work.” The irony of Ford’s industrial pas­toralism is that the automobile played a not incon­sid­er­able role in fracturing those communities to which Ford felt an increasingly senti­mental attachment. Congres­sional deadlock shattered his dream. George W. Norris, a Republican senator from Nebraska and a committed progressive, argued that Ford’s pro­posal should be under­taken not by private interests but by the gov­ern­­ment. Republicans were different animals then.

Henry Ford wanted to export to the Amazon a traditional American way of life that he believed was coming undone at home.

In the Amazon, Ford need brook no inter­ference from the U.S. government. In 1927, the magnate sent a University of Michigan ­botanist to Brazil, where he selected a parcel of land bordering the Tapajós River that he thought ideal. It was 80 miles to the nearest city and six days by boat to the Amazon’s mouth. With only vague instructions from headquarters, Grandin writes, two other advance men—a lawyer and a middle manager—asked Brazilian officials for everything: “the right to exploit the land’s lumber and mineral reserves, the right to build railroads and airfields, to erect any kind of building without government supervision, establish banks, organize a private police force, run schools, draw power from waterfalls, and ‘dam up the river in any way we needed to.’” And they secured an exemption from export taxes on rubber, latex, and anything else the plantation shipped abroad. The state government offered 2.5 million acres, a million less than requested. “That acreage,” a Harper’s reporter wrote, “was about ­five-­sixths the size of Connecticut, but when compared to the colossal Amazon basin it was a mere garden patch.” Ford agreed to plant rubber on a thousand acres of his garden within the year and pay $125,000 for half of the land, as it was privately held. The other half, public land, he received ­gratis.

Ford’s vision for his outpost was grand: a town complete with schools and Cape ­Cod–style houses as well as high wages and health care for all, both the American managers and the Brazilians attracted by word that the company was hiring people by the thousands. Ford would encourage workers to grow flowers and vegetables and eat only ­whole-­wheat bread and unpolished rice. He would bring electricity to the jungle, and with it, telephones, washing machines, record players, and refrigerators. Some of his goals seemed quaint, such as staging poetry recitations and promoting ballroom dancing, with square dances on weekends. Others were downright peculiar, such as his intention to have nurseries feed soymilk to babies because, after growing up on a farm, he despised cows. Ford wanted to create American towns, Grandin writes, that just happened to be in the Amazon, with “central squares, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, hospitals, manicured lawns, movie theaters, swimming pools, golf courses, and, of course, Model Ts and As rolling down their paved streets.”

Expectations, fueled by company press releases, ran high. The Christian Science Monitor reported Ford would plant five million acres. The Washington Post had Ford’s plantation (“Bigger Than New Jersey” read the headline) yielding enough rubber to make tires for two million cars every year. The New York Times predicted Ford’s land would one day produce six billion pounds of rubber a year, an extraordinary feat of hypothetical ­productivity.

Problems arose immediately. The first ships, carrying much needed supplies, arrived in September 1928, during the dry season, when the river is low, and so couldn’t reach the settlement for several months. Workers started clearing the jungle during the wet season, when felled trees won’t burn. Soil erosion and leaf blight dogged the rubber plantings, and rifts among the workers bedeviled the operation. Ford’s principal manager felt he was inadequately compensated, and so siphoned cash from the plantation’s coffers. Later, when waiters in the dining hall were replaced with ­cafeteria-­style service, Brazilian skilled craftsmen protested. They didn’t want to queue up for food with com­mon laborers. A riot ensued, leaving Fordlandia in ruins. Many expected Ford to close the plantation, but he decided to rebuild, increasing his investment in the model ­city.

The central problem, though, was a culture of obstinacy fed by a track record of success. Ford, the company and the man, always knew best, even though Ford himself never once visited Brazil. Thatched roofs, the thinking went, indicated that civilization had yet to deliver its infinite blessings, and so Ford built homes with metal roofs lined with asbestos. Intended to reflect the heat, the houses retained it, like Cape ­Cod–­style ovens. A priest there described them as “hotter than the gates of hell.” Company managers, he added, “never really figured out what country they were in.”

Four years into the arduous work at Fordlandia, only an accountant thought to ask if it was “fair to assume that seeds which grew up in a forest will do as well when planted in a totally denuded area under a hot tropical sun.” Soon after, the plantation manager wrote Dearborn, “We are entering a gigantic proposition. . . . It would be well to have the opinion of the highest expert on rubber planting.” The expert wasn’t optimistic. After attempting to address the many problems, he recommended abandoning the settlement and transferring operations downriver, where the ground was flatter and the soil richer. With six years and $7 million invested, the company all but shuttered Fordlandia, shifting its interests to Belterra, the proposed site. In Portuguese the name means “beautiful land,” but blight followed, as did swarms of caterpillars. In 1942, Belterra yielded just 750 tons of latex. “It wasn’t ­high-­quality rubber,” Grandin writes, nor would it offset Ford’s yearly need for 25,000 ­tons.

In 1945, shortly after being named company president, Henry Ford II turned the plantations over to the Brazilian government. Estimates placed their value at $8 million, considerably less than the company had invested. Ford parted with the land for $244,200, enough to cover the severance pay owed remaining workers. While his grandfather’s vision never became real, the towns did look as Ford had imagined them, golf courses and all. But they were not towns for the people who lived ­there.

Grandin cautions against seeing Fordlandia as a parable about the folly of arrogance. Ford’s dream, he says, was fueled not by hubris but by a utopian urge. The arrogance, Grandin writes, “is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.” In the jungle, far from government, industry could thrive, and “solve whatever social problems arose from progress’s advance.” Looked at another way, Fordlandia illustrates the determination of busi­ness to seek its own profit, unfettered and ­un­bothered—­until profits prove elusive. What’s more, Ford’s principles were situational, if not ad hoc. He was staunchly in favor of privatized gains but wouldn’t refuse socialized risks. In this year of massive bailouts for banks and automotive manufacturers, the contradictions at the heart of Fordlandia are laid bare ­again.

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Paul Maliszewski is the author Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, published earlier this year, and Prayer and Parable, a forthcoming short story collection.

Reviewed: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan, 416 pp, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Bill McChesney