“I don’t have a fear of heights” I tell myself as I climb up the rusty ladder. Don’t look down the 150 feet to the ground below. It is early morning in Fordlandia, Brazil, and the humidity is already rising from the jungle around, 36 degrees today. I reach the top of the water tower, where there is a cooling breeze and a panoramic view around me – of a decaying piece of history set between a blue river and a green jungle. This is the town that Henry Ford ordered built in 1928, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and then abandoned, abruptly, in 1944. And, incredibly, it is still here.
The water tower was built to supply 500,000 gallons of filtered and chlorinated water to the town. The “Ford” logo has weathered off, but it is still the most potent symbol of the ambition of Fordlandia. From this tower, and just like in a factory, the whistle would blow, summoning thousands of local workers to the plantations to plant and harvest rubber (clocks were set to Detroit time and workers had to punch their card at timeclocks). And, unbelievably, the water system is still working, still pumping water to the handful of residents who live in the remains of the town. I rest on the thin railing and look around.
Down below, an antique utility (Ford - a Model A by the looks of it), one of the original vehicles brought to the Amazon by the Americans, drives through the main square. The square has street lights and fire hydrants, a first in the Amazon. And it has a recent statue of the town’s namesake – Henry Ford. Ford is depicted tapping a tree for rubber (the local sculptor put him in flip flops (Havaianas) and a long, loose fitting shirt, clearly not knowing how stiff and formal Ford could be, so this is a “Brazilian’ version).
This town was built as the centre of “rubber under an American flag”, supplying the industrial needs of the factories of the US and to combat a rubber cartel being proposed by Winston Churchill. Rubber originated in the Amazon, and for decades global demand had made a few very rich, and the humble tappers very poor.
We also visited the “Theatre of the Amazon”, an amazing French renaissance style opera house, built in Manaus, the rubber capital, in the late 1890s. The rubber barons wanted culture in the jungle and had the money to do it, so Carrara marble and Venetian chandeliers were shipped from Europe and up the Amazon. This masterpiece was meant to rival Paris, even if the best singers wouldn’t come for fear of getting malaria.
Then a British spy stole rubber seeds which were planted in Malaya. Rubber could be grown cheaper in Asia, and, when the first Malayan rubber hit the market in 1912, the Brazilian rubber industry collapsed overnight. At least until Ford appeared on the horizon, or so they thought.
The water tower is right next to the power plant and saw mill – huge industrial buildings, built in the style of Ford’s factories in Michigan, with lots of windows to save on lighting bills. Most of the windows are broken or missing now. The equipment is still there, solid, rusting, stamped with “made in the USA”. Boxes of nuts and bolts, and spares, still sit on dusty shelves. It is, in some ways, an industrial museum. An owl nests in the rafters, and is disturbed as we enter.
Ford wanted to grow rubber just like he made cars – a production line, with a focus on order and efficiency. He sent ships full of “science, brains and money” to “industrialise’ the jungle. Thousands of acres of jungle were cleared and rubber planted in neat rows. Unfortunately, this was not how to grow rubber. And Ford sent engineers, doctors, accountants to the new venture – but no one who actually knew about agriculture. He didn’t trust experts – “they always know to a dot why something can’t be done”. And so the plantations failed. The trees were too close, so disease spread rapidly and repeatedly. In the wild the trees were far enough apart to avoid this, and the undergrowth (all cleared by bulldozers) also helped to prevent parasites. Crop after crop failed. (Ironically, the bulldozers were made by GM, not Ford...)
In the distance, I can see the “American” settlement. A street of white clapboard houses built for the Midwest managers and the families who were to run the plantation. The houses have verandas,, windows with shutters and French doors. The small town American feel is eerie. The houses were well built (with imported timber), roomy and well appointed. Now they are slowly decaying, the timber rotting, paint peeling. Locals squat in some of them, and even use the original furniture. The community swimming pool was apparently still used until the 1990s. The golf course is gone, swallowed by the jungle.
Beyond the American street is the local graveyard. Many of the Ford men and their families died in the Amazon, far from home. But the conditions on the plantation not only led to diseases amongst the trees, but amongst the workers. The number of concrete crosses with deaths in 1930 and 1931 is really saddening, this was when epidemics spread through the settlement.
Closer to the river, I can see a cluster of long, low buildings. These were facilities built by the Ford Company for the workers. A canteen, scene of a riot when workers were forced to stand in line to be fed instead of being served by waiters. A dance hall, where only the old time barn dances favoured by Ford were allowed. A school, where the children of locals were educated. There were two schools in Fordlandia, one named after Henry and one after his son Edsel. The kids wore neat white shirts. The hospital is now destroyed, burnt down after being repeatedly looted. At the time it was the best in South America, and rich Brazilians went there to be treated.
All these facilities demonstrate what became the alternative purpose of Fordlandia – what Edsel Ford called the “redemption” of the Amazon. This “oasis” in the Amazon would bring civilisation to the natives, taming the wilderness and raising up the condition of the locals. Ford’s people presided over a paternalistic welfare state, to try and change the locals into “good” people. The company man tried to ban alcohol. When they approached the local Catholic priest to help, he said “For heaven’s sake, I’m not a Baptist!”. Maybe that’s why Ford wouldn’t let churches be built (though one was constructed soon after his people left). This kind of control didn't work.
The river is blue in the distance. This is the Tapajos, a tributary of the Amazon River. Where the two rivers meet is a curious phenomenon called the “meeting of the waters” – a straight line between the murky brown of the Amazon, and the blue of the Tapajos.
We came to Fordlandia by road – not by boat. It but gave us more time than getting the river boat allowed. The Trans-Amazonia highway is possibly the worst road in the world, with some stretches having more pot holes than road. It was built to “conquer” the Amazon and we saw the forest burning along the route to make way for pastures. We came through a town called “Ruropolis”, a dusty outpost. A local said to me “this is the end of the world”. He was speaking Portuguese but I could understand exactly what he said.
Today, Fordlandia has a few hundred residents, with the population growing as soy and cattle replace jungle. Ironically, Henry Ford hated cows and spent a fortune promoting the use of soy as an alternative to dairy products – so a crop he favoured is being grown here.
Visiting this place was an incredible experience. Walt Disney came during the War and made a documentary called “The Amazon awakens” about all the progress being made. You can see it on Youtube for yourself. To me, it is a potent reminder of the power of nature and the limits of what can be done. But for all the failure, it is amazing to see what was built here in the middle of nowhere, which is something of a tribute to the dedicated of the Ford Men. Some $20m was spent on this experiment, a fortune in the day. And when the decision was made to leave in 1944, it was sudden, and everything was left behind.
One last unusual aspect of the visit. After the American Civil War, around 200 former Confederates left the US and settled in Brazil (escaping the Yankees). Several families came to Santarem, the nearest town to where Fordlandia was established. The Riker family from South Carolina married locals and set up a farm. David Riker, a descendent of these Confederates, helped the Ford people in working with the locals to keep the venture alive. Jen and I met one of David Riker's great grandchildren, Darlan, a pilot who took us out on the Amazon River to see the meeting of the waters. He is the first of his family in generations to speak English, as well as Portuguese. He explained that his ancestors just wanted to a new life in Brazil. It appears the Confederates in Santarem did not take slavery with them (though slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888).