Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I’ve checked off another book from my 2010 reading list: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. For me, it was a pretty fascinating read. My perception of Henry Ford before reading this book was that he revolutionized auto production with the assembly line and was one of the most successful businessmen in American history. Now that I’ve read Fordlandia, I know that he did make a few bad business decisions amidst many good ones.

Here’s the good. Nearly 100 years ago, he paid his workers $5 per day, which was much higher than workers at other companies were getting paid. He paid workers the same wages, regardless of their race, which was also unusual at the time. This was in large part the cause of so many African Americans leaving the South to find work up North (specifically in Detroit). He encouraged his employees to plant gardens so they could eat their own fresh vegetables. He advocated for soy in the diet. He didn’t believe in war. He advocated for railroads and telephone service nationwide. He was creative in his thinking about how farmers could produce crops that would benefit American factories. He figured out how to go from assembling a Model T in 12 hours and eight minutes to assembling it in one hour and three minutes. He advocated for work-live communities.

Here’s the bad. He advocated for work-live communities. Here a good idea in theory backfired on him as he tried to set up a community in the Brazilian rainforest. In 1927, he began the process by buying land in the Amazon twice the size of Delaware for the purpose of growing rubber for use in his factories. He soon began shipping down everything he thought he’d need to build a successful and productive community.

It wasn’t long before problems began cropping up. First, Americans, even those who had farmed in the United States, weren’t successful rubber tree farmers in the rainforest. Second, some of the people Ford trusted and hired to make the community work pocketed money and corrupted the system. Mosquitoes, malaria, exhaustion and other inconveniences affected the workers. There were vast cultural differences between the Americans working in Fordlandia and South American natives who’d also been hired to work there. Housing that mimicked that of the American Midwest was ill suited to the jungle. Food was served rotten. At times there was as much as a 300 percent turnover rate among workers. Sexually transmitted diseases spread quickly through the community. Not enough rubber was being produced. Workers were resistant when the community was ordered to begin operating on American Central Standard (Detroit) time, rather than local time. Cooks couldn’t get food ready fast enough for all the people who lined up to eat a meal, which one day led to rioting in the dining hall, and destruction of other public property across the community, and complete disorder.

During all of this, Ford produced propaganda to suggest to the American people that all was well in the Amazon, despite the onslaught of the Great Depression. Fordlandia seems to be something that’s left out of many history books. It was so interesting to read this from the standpoint that Ford did do something that didn’t work well for his business. I definitely recommend this book as it’s a fascinating piece of American history.

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