Ghost Town Wednesday: Fordlandia (Part Two)

GhostTownWednesdayAfter Willis Blakeley finally arrived at the camp, he began the process of hiring laborers.  Keeping a stable labor force was a problem, however.  The locals had grown accustomed to their own way of life where they would work during the season when rubber was harvested, sell that and live off their earnings until the next season.  Blakeley and his successors all encountered the same problem — after a worker had accumulated some savings he would go home to his family.

Back in Dearborn one company official, Ernest Liebold, thought that perhaps “there was nothing down there to absorb their earnings”.  The project was run from Michigan and one glaring issue was that they tended to solve problems with Michigan logic.  They simply thought that what was missing was one important aspect of “Fordism” and that was something to buy.

To ensure a more stable work force, Henry Ford ordered the administrators in Brazil to pay 25 to 35 percent above the local wage.  It really was a losing proposition, however, and not one that could really be won – pay too little and they wouldn’t be able to attract as many workers; pay too much and the workers would just work until they had enough to live on for awhile and then return home.

One of many Blakeley’s missteps occurred when he decided to begin clearing the jungle for planting during the wet season.  Ideally the trees needed to be burned and, of course, that wasn’t really possible when it was raining.  So, what does an inexperienced manager do?  He poured on copious amounts of kerosene, and then had a fire that burned out of control for several days.  Even after seeds were planted, the plants failed to thrive.

FordlandiaBarrenIncreasingly so, Dearborn grew suspicious of Blakeley.  He was becoming resentful that he wasn’t being paid well enough and began to pocket money meant for the operation and the workers (quinine for the sick, gas for the power saws and tractors).  By October 1928, Dearborn had enough and dismissed Blakeley.  Einar Oxholm, a Norwegian sea captain would be his replacement.

Dearborn was still providing the plans and management of the project, but no one seemed to understand jungle conditions.  For instance, instead of thatch for roofs, builders used metal which, of course, turned the houses into ovens.  Oxholm didn’t fare much better than Blakeley.  He knew nothing about agriculture, rubber or the tropics.  As Bill Bryson put it in his book One Summer: America, 1927, “he was a better human being than Blakeley, but not a more competent one.”  Oxholm was an honest man, however, and that was important to Henry Ford.

The climate and the harsh conditions were devastating to Oxholm and his family – three of his four children died and were buried there.  Sickness and disease were rampant and the Tapajós River was extremely dangerous.  Oxholm’s maid bathed in the river one evening and emerged with one arm missing.  A caiman had attacked her and she bled to death.  By the end of 1929 there were already ninety people buried in the company cemetery.

FordlandiaCemeteryEinar Oxholm returned to the United States in early 1930 – he had had enough after losing three children.  He would later remark that Fordlandia was ‘the hardest proposition I have ever tackled in my life.”  Victor Perini was Henry Ford’s next choice to head operations at Fordlandia.  Perini was planning to leave his wife Constance behind in Michigan, but was overruled by Dearborn.  They believed that the presence of women would help alleviate some of the problems they had experienced with gambling and drinking.  But, Victor Perini didn’t last long either – he couldn’t endure the Amazon heat.  He was replaced by John Rogge.

Workers were expected to eat American foods, like oatmeal, canned peaches and Jell-O which were distasteful to the workers, mostly because it was regimented by none other than Henry Ford. They also became increasingly disenchanted with their compensation, or lack thereof.  In America, Henry Ford had famously decided to pay his workers $5 a day, so his workers in Brazil expected the same.  They were paid considerably less, about 35 cents a day, and from those wages was deducted the cost of their meals (whether they ate them or not).  There was also the restriction on alcohol consumption.  Plantation managers asked a Catholic priest to preach against drinking.  The priest remarked, “For heaven’s sake, I’m not a Baptist.”

Other changes were instituted which further inflamed the situation in Fordlandia.  In addition to having the cost of their meals deducted from their pay, management decided to try a cafeteria line to serve workers.  Previously, workers had been seated at tables and waited on by servers.  One day workers had enough – no longer wanting to be “treated like dogs”, plus the heat in the metal-roofed mess hall was unbearable.

One disgruntled laborer was tired of standing in line and pushed his way inside to speak with one of the managers, Kaj Ostenfeld, who was in charge of payroll.  Ostenfeld’s flippant response set off a riot.  The clamor began with dishes, pots, chairs, and glass being smashed.  Workers came into the mess hall armed with knives, pipes, hammers, machetes and clubs.  One worker cried “Let’s break everything, let’s get hold of Ostenfeld.”  But Ostenfeld had already fled the scene.

FordlandiaRiotWorkers weren’t content with smashing up the mess hall; they proceeded to destroy every piece of machinery they could find on the plantation.  Time clocks were smashed to bits.  John Rogge tried to intervene, but after some workers showed up with liquor, the riot escalated.  Rogge decided to leave with his staff after drunken workers began to chant “Brazil for Brazilians.  Kill all the Americans.”

Labor unrest was nothing new to Henry Ford, and he was strongly opposed to unions.  Ford officials were determined that workers, should they decided to strike, would not dictate how the company ran its business.  The military was called upon to intervene.  The aftermath of the riot was that most of the work force, after being paid for all time worked up until December 22, was fired.  Fordlandia was in ruins with damages estimated to be over twenty-five thousand dollars.

Henry Ford later sent yet another manager to run the operations of Fordlandia.  Scottish-born Archibald Johnston was finally able to get a handle on the situation and make the necessary repairs and improvements.  Better housing, a school, shops and a clean water supply brought more stability to Fordlandia.  Even though by this time there were around seven hundred thousand rubber trees growing, the cost of keeping them protected from insect infestation seriously eroded the possibility of profit.

The aftermath of the riot and successions of poor managers was beginning to become apparent to the rest of the world outside of Dearborn.  Henry Ford began a public relations campaign to repair his and the Ford Motor Company’s reputation.  Instead of abandoning Fordlandia at that time, he decided to pour even more resources into the project, determined to make it work.  As it turns out, it was money ill-spent.

FordlandiaAbandonedThe effects of the Great Depressions were not immediately felt in Brazil, but eventually demand for rubber subsided.  During World War II, synthetic rubber, something Ford’s friend Thomas Edison was never able to produce, was developed.  Finally, after almost twenty years of essentially pouring money down the drain, Henry Ford gave up his Utopian/Amazonian dream and abandoned Fordlandia.  The land was given back to the Brazilian government and later purchased by another American company, Cargill.

FordlandiaAbandoned2When Henry Ford first conceived the idea of Fordlandia, he no doubt envisioned a sort of American “midwestern dream” in the Amazon jungle.  With all the regimentation and attempted “Americanization” of workers, not to mention his insistence on tee-totalism in light of America’s own Prohibition, in the end his vision was a colossal failure.  Henry Ford never once stepped foot in Fordlandia and in the end it would cost his company millions.

Greg Gandlin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, summed it up best:

Rather than a midwestern city of virtue springing from the Amazon green, local merchants set up thatched bordellos, bars and gambling houses, turning Fordlandia into a rain forest boomtown.  Managers eventually established sovereignty over the settlement and achieved something approaching their boss’s vision.  But then nature rebelled.

Hubris seems the obvious moral attached to Fordlandia, especially considering not just the disaster of its early years but also, even once order was established and the city was more or less functional, rubber’s refusal to submit to Ford-style regimentation.

This wasn’t the only time that Henry Ford’s “hubris” would play a role in his business dealings, however.  Tune in for next Monday’s article and more about other Henry Ford missteps as well as his social and political views.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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