Even the most successful business people make mistakes or propose ill-conceived ideas. Such was the case when mega-successful Henry Ford conceived a plan to plant and maintain his own rubber plantation in Brazil. At the time, Ford Motor Company was probably one of the largest consumers of rubber in America, used in the production of their wildly popular Model T’s.
Historically, the Amazon had long been the major source for the world’s rubber supply – that is until a Brit by the name of Henry Wickham stole some seeds and sold them to the Royal Botanic Garden. The rubber plants did very well and soon they were sent to British colonies in the Far East. As it turned out, the Far East was a more hospitable place for rubber plantations than were the jungles of the Amazon.
Malaysia became the new source for rubber, which could conceivably allow Britain to rule the world as far as rubber production and prices. This was not acceptable to Henry Ford since it would raise his production costs considerably. In the early days of automotive use, tires needed to be replaced every two or three thousand miles on average.
It was neither acceptable to the United States for Britain to “rule the world” in regards to rubber production and prices. Rumors were circulated that Britain intended to levy heavy duties on rubber in order to pay off their war debts. Herbert Hoover, as Commerce Secretary, attempted to find a way to avoid the pitfalls of dependence on Far East rubber, but rubber didn’t grow well in the United States.
Thomas Edison even tried to invent a synthetic version and was unsuccessful. This dilemma presented a personal challenge to Henry Ford who always ran a tight ship – he hated waste (among other things). The challenge wasn’t a new one either as he had previously solved other supply demands by opening and maintaining his own coal and ore mines, forests and saw mills, a railroad and a fleet of ships.
The idea he conceived would be his most ambitious, and ultimately, his most colossal mistake. In 1927 he began planning an American community in the Brazilian jungle and it would be called “Fordlandia”. The Brazilians, having been economically devastated by the shift to Far Eastern rubber supplies, were eager to deal with Ford. He got a “sweetheart deal” – two and a half million acres of Amazonian rain forest for $125,000, an area approximately the size of Connecticut. In addition he received a fifty-year waiver of import and export duties.
Henry Ford would be allowed to set up his own autonomous state – he could build his own airports, housing, hospitals, banks and so on. His instructions were explicit for his designated project manager, Willis Blakeley. According to One Summer: America, 1927:
He was to build a complete town with a central square, business district, hospital , movie theater, ballroom, golf course, and other useful and fulfilling municipal enterprises. Surrounding this were to be residential neighborhoods of white shingled cottages, each with a neat lawn, flower bed, and vegetable garden. Artists’ illustrations, which the Ford company helpfully provided, showed a tranquil and idyllic community complete with paved streets and Ford cars, in defiance of the obvious fact that there would be nowhere beyond the very modest confines of the town for them to go.
Ford was so determined to have an Americanized community in the jungles of the Amazon that he had the clocks there set to Michigan time. Prohibition was in effect in America at the time (Henry Ford was adamantly opposed to alcohol consumption), so it was in effect in Fordlandia as well, although there was no such law in Brazil. “Whatever the cost, Fordlandia would be dedicated to American laws, culture, and values—an outpost of Protestant ideals in the middle of a hot, godless jungle.” (One Summer).
As it turns out, Blakeley wasn’t particularly well-suited for the monumental task at hand. One Summer author Bill Bryson called him an “uneducated thug.” Before he even reached the Fordlandia site, he proved to be quite an embarrassment. In the city of Belém he and his wife encamped in a suite at the Hotel Grande which overlooked the main city plaza. To the horror of locals, he would parade around naked and make love to his wife with the shutters wide open for all to see, this in addition to frequently being drunk.
Upon reaching the site, it would become clear that Willis Blakeley was indeed in over his head and far from the most suitable choice to run Henry Ford’s ambitious project. Stay tuned next week for Part Two of this unique “ghost town” story, as well as checking in to read more about Henry Ford’s story on Motoring History Monday.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.