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Fordlandia – Henry Ford’s Rubber Plantation’s Colossal Failure

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By the late twenties, Henry Ford was a captain of industry who controlled all of his manufacturing operations around the world and ruled them with an iron fist. He also established a supply chain that fed most of the raw materials necessary for building cars, trucks, and airplanes as possible to his numerous factory operations. In the end, he came close to making the company self-sufficient and saved the company millions upon millions of dollars yearly.

Henry owned and operated iron mines and brought the ore to the enormous River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan on his ships. In addition, Ford had: coal mines, a railroad to move the coal, forest land, sawmills, steel and rolling mills, a cast iron furnace and foundry, a glass furnace and mill, a power plant producing electricity, a paper mill and a soybean conversion operation necessary for making plastic.

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  • Aerial image of Fordlandia taken in 1934.

After producing fifteen million Model “T” cars and trucks between 1909 to 1927, and buying more than sixty-million tires for them, Ford decided to build a tire plant and produce his tires in-house to cut costs. To do so and not have to pay the British rubber companies premium prices for rubber, Henry also decided to build a rubber plantation in a rain forest located in Brazil.

Ford began by negotiating the purchase of some secluded acreage with the Brazilian Government in 1927. Then had his employees and hired natives clear cut most of the rain forest acreage, and build Fordlandia, a self-sufficient town. It included: housing, stores, a hospital, recreational facilities and, the rubber plantation. Similar Ford factory towns had previously worked out well in many other locations around the world, but not in this case in Brazil.

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  • Rubber Tree Plants in the nursery, 1935 – Black and white photos courtesy of The Henry Ford.

Unfortunately, Henry made sure that the well-paid Brazilian workers ate an American diet, spoke English, and did not smoke or drink, as he had previously done with most all of his other workers in other locations. In this case, it backfired and the workers in time rebelled and rioted. One of his other big mistakes was planting rubber trees that thrived in Asia but did not grow well in the rocky and infertile land chosen in Brazil.

Another issue arose because Ford never consulted with horticultural experts about the trees which soon became infested with pests, fungi, and blight. To make matters worse, Henry insisted on growing the plants close together as a means of increasing production, which in turn magnified all the problems. Not an ounce of latex, a key ingredient in rubber was ever produced, and the colossal failure finally shut down for good in 1945.

In the video (below) courtesy of the BBCWorldwide noted British actor, comedian and writer Michael Palin visited and describes what is left of the overgrown ruins of Fordlandia.

22 responses to “Fordlandia – Henry Ford’s Rubber Plantation’s Colossal Failure

  1. The employees rebelled and rioted.Wish they would do that around here sometimes.
    Ford used to hold company square dances in Detroit back when the he first got successful,I think once a week.Woe to the middle manager and up who failed to attend the shindigs.Your absence was definitely noted and it could cause you trouble.
    In a way Ford reminds me of crackpot R.J Kellog

    • While trying feverishly not to give away his agenda, Ford wanted total control of ALL employees that worked for him. His henchman would go to popular ‘watering holes’ looking for dunk employees on a Saturday night when they were off work. If you were found drunk, you lost your job right there–no questions. If an employee held a party in their own private home and other workers attended, the party was crashed by the henchman and if any liquor was found, every employee in attendance was fired on the spot; no questions. Then came the labor riots of 1932-33, which was a boiling point in Ford’s iron-fisted rule. Things changed, and the unions helped, but it was HF’s elder years that made him soften. He realized too late he couldn’t rule all. Unfortunately, many died in the process; more than news outlets reported.

    • Perilous indeed! Recognizing disaster was just around the corner, Edsel’s wife, Elanor Clay Ford offered the old man a choice: turn the company over to her son, Henry 2, or she was going to sell every share of stock she held in the company on the open market. Tough gal. Henry 1 blinked.

  2. A terrific book called Fordlandia came out a few years ago and describes the entire project in great detail; see Amazon or your favorite bookstore.

  3. Michael Palin has one of the greatest jobs I can imagine — right up there with yours, David!
    The Fordlandia debacle is an example of how good ideas can be carried to catastrophic extremes, and maybe of how a genius can bring about his own (almost) undoing by believing in his own infallibility.

  4. Those long piers in the overhead view probably accommodated float planes, one of which hosted the photographer. Anyone ever hear of a Ford Tri Motor fitted with floats?

  5. Yez, one was tested with floats, I’ve seen a photo of it on the Detroit river.

    However, the photo was not taken from one, the wing floats does not match. Why?
    Because the Ford floatplanes didn’t have them!

    More likely, the piers were for ships bringing in building material and (ideally) taking away rubber.

  6. There is an excellent episode of “Mysteries of the Abandoned” on a cable channel that spent an episode on this facility. You get the sense that even after the plant failed, no one freely chose to live in the area.

    Also – don’t forget how Ford revolutionized the charcoal industry and helped to create the auto camping experience.

  7. As being not american I think I give an impartial opinion on this subject,I feel after reading some books and his bio that the man was so megalomaniac tha even lead me to dude about his geniality. As inventor and as innovative milestone in car tech.Being friend of Andre Citroen gives us a clue ,he make several visits to Citroen´s factory but seemed tha HF doesnt learn anything there. BTW the metallic grey truck that appears nat the begining of the video is a brazilian made Ford “Pampa” (based in the Ford Corcel platform) that uses a Renault!!! powertrain… .

  8. The book is titled Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. It is excellent. It is part of our Model A Club’s extensive library and was recommended by our librarian. I was skeptical but I am glad I took his advice. The reason for building the town was simple: Ford had total control of producing all the materials he needed. Except rubber. The fact that rubber HAD to be sourced from countries that might become hostile to the US unnerved him. (It bothered his tire-making friend Harvey Firestone even more! Firestone made an initial rubber growing foray into North Africa but quickly abandoned the idea. Still, his concern encouraged Ford to try in Brazil.) Indeed, the core of the book focuses on the establishment of building the ideal Midwestern town in the heart of Brazil, complete with Ford cars, fire hydrants, schools, sidewalks and tennis courts, a happy, thriving community producing tons of low cost rubber and the colossal mistakes that doomed the project. Sort of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street meets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

    But it is so much more. The author frequently flashes back to Ford’s US operations and you will learn about his desire to set up cottage industries in Michigan, about the soulless factory The Rouge became where employees were forbidden to speak and did not have enough space to run their machines, the Service Department once a benign assist to new employees now run by thugs, the treatment of foreign workers and his clash with gung-ho Teddy Roosevelt during WW I who highly offended Ford’s pacifist ideals.
    I highly recommend this book, not just for this little known venture which cost Ford some $20 million, but also for anyone interested in the life and times of his company, his employees and the man himself particularly in the 1920s and 30s.

  9. Greatness always has a little failure, and people always jump on it , but remember he gave America cars that everyone could afford thus making life easier for all

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