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Henry Ford: Growing Rubber

Automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (the innovator who revolutionised the industrial production plant with his assembly line technology) also harboured ambitions of growing his own rubber to produce tyres.

The founder of the Ford Motor Company who launched his business in June 1903, at the age of 39, came up with the idea of building his own city, Fordlandia, in the 1920s in the jungle of northern Brazil.

His idea was to found a city based on his successful company values, with the aim of emulating the success of Ford Motors and producing cheap rubber. However, Fordlandia became one of the US industrialist's biggest failures.

Henry Ford

© 3asy60lf / Adobe Stock

 

How it began

Ford wanted to found a cost-effective latex company to help with the production of his cars. He planned to grow his own rubber trees in Brazil after realising the monopoly on rubber from Sri Lanka was pushing up the costs of his new Model A car.

Enabling the Ford Motor Company to make its own tyres using cheap rubber he had produced himself would cut costs considerably, but his vision ran deeper than simply producing his own rubber to ship back to Ford's headquarters in Dearborn.

He wanted to construct his own utopia in the jungle, with its name based on his surname. He believed he was bringing a better future to this part of the earth. With a global reputation that was well-known in Brazil, the announcement of Ford's plans was greeted with great excitement.

It would be fair to say that in the early 20th century, the name Henry Ford was as well-known and highly respected as the name of Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg today.

The Brazilian newspapers began writing about their prospective new resident, speculating on whether he would also build a new railroad from the coast or a car factory in the region. Everyone wanted to know when he would arrive.

 

Amazon basin

Ford decided the ideal location for his new city was the Amazon basin. In the 1920s, the region was struggling. At the end of the 19th century, the Amazon had a monopoly on rubber production. There was a massive global demand and it was easily transported along the Amazon River.

People seeking their fortune had arrived there to find work and new cities had grown along the riverbanks, with smart new buildings. The port of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon was the busiest in Brazil.

By the 1920s, the tide had begun to turn. The rubber tree cultivation wasn't standardised and they were planted too close together, leading to parasites and blight. Botanists began planting Brazil's native rubber tree in other tropical countries where there weren't any parasites.

British botanists introduced rubber trees to Sri Lanka after they smuggled the seeds out of Brazil. Subsequently, the trees in Sri Lanka began to out-perform those in Brazil. This devastated the Amazon basin, which was dependent on rubber production.

Ford became fascinated with the region and announced his plans, saying it wasn't to make money but was to help develop the "fertile land". He decided to follow his dream when rubber prices continued to increase.

 

Birth of Fordlandia

Ford made a deal with the state of Para in Brazil so that he could operate a commercial operation covering a 5,625 square mile piece of land around a tributary of the Amazon, the Tapajós river, paying $125,000 for the privilege. He later found he had paid over the odds for the site.

Having all he needed to make his dream a reality, the industrialist was able to run Fordlandia as a separate state. It was on high ground to protect it from flooding, but unfortunately, this meant the cargo ship needed to transport the construction materials couldn't reach the site until the rainy season.

It was reported that the crew waiting at Fordlandia in late 1928 was already angry about a lack of supplies, complaining they had only rotting food – subsequently, they revolted against the management.

Construction finally began after the first materials arrived in 1929 and the city was built with an American area, called the Vila Americana, for the staff who flew out to work there. They were separated from the local Brazilian workers. The American area had running water, while the Brazilian workers had to get their water supply from wells.

 

Construction process

As construction continued, modern hospitals, a sawmill, schools and generators were added. By the end of 1930, the landmark water tower had been built, but there was still much to do. Clearing the jungle was tougher than Ford imagined and he was short of labourers, despite paying decent wages.

He had planned to sell wood from the Amazon until the rubber production became established, but it was useless. Ford wanted the city to be alcohol-free, but this rule was impossible to maintain. The press began to turn on him over time and he went through several project managers over a two-year period.

In December 1930, a mass brawl broke out in the workers' cafe after a supervisor and a brick mason argued. The workers rallied behind the brick mason and during the subsequent violence, the city was vandalised. Manufacturing equipment, generators and even workers' homes were wrecked as the discord escalated.

The managerial staff fled by boat and the Brazilian military had to be brought in by plane to quell the uprising.

 

Turning point

This was a turning point for Fordlandia. The city was rebuilt, with more housing and roads connecting Fordlandia with a territory further inland that Ford had acquired, and other amenities typical of American towns, including a cinema and dance hall.

However, despite the enhancements, the problem remained that no rubber was being produced. Ford employed top botanist, James R Weir, but his planting methods were unsuccessful and he left in 1937. By 1940, Fordlandia employed 400 people, despite its lack of economic viability.

During the Second World War, Ford's car manufacturing plant became involved in the war effort and Fordlandia increasingly became a base for American military personnel. By the end of the war, Ford's health was poor and his grandson, Henry Ford II, began running the company.

He was more ruthless in getting rid of under-performing assets to save money - and Fordlandia was one of the first to go. He sold it back to the Brazilian government at a financial loss and the American residents flew back to the States, leaving the local workers wondering what had happened.

 

End of an era

In contrast to the flurry of excitement when Fordlandia opened, its rubber tree operation closed down gradually and quietly. The generator and sawmill equipment were left to the elements and vandals. Although the water tower still stands, it doesn't hold water any more.

Fordlandia today has a population of around 3,000 people and is described as an "average town".

The Ford motor company is a global giant, with ventures across the world. As America's second-largest automobile manufacturer, it boasts a global revenue of $118.3 billion, producing more than 5.5 million vehicles every year and employing 213,000 people at 90 plants.

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