Friday, March 14, 2014

Fordlandia


In 1927, Henry Ford was one of the richest men on Earth.  His factories pumped out automobiles and his revolutionary production methods were changing the industrial world.

But his empire had a problem, an Achilles' heel, and he knew it.


Ford's cars were built of American steel and American wood.  But the tires of his cars were rubber and the cartels which sold the essential material upon which his automobiles literally rested were Dutch and British.  His company was at their mercy and these foreign monopolists were not in any mood to be generous.

But, true to form, Henry Ford decided he had the ultimate solution.  He would build his own 25,000 acre city in the Brazilian rainforest and grow all the rubber trees he needed to keep the entire United States literally rolling along.

Of course, he named his new real estate venture after himself.  He called the world's newest city Fordlandia.


By 1929, Ford bought a piece of Brazil the size of the state of Connecticut four hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean deep in the Amazon jungle.  And he started to plant rubber trees.

But this was not going to be any ordinary rubber plantation.  Henry Ford believed in his Midwestern vision of America and he would transplant it to his city, no matter how far Fordlandia was from the suburbs of Detroit.


Fordlandia was as American as the proverbial apple pie.  Cape Cod homes, ice cream parlors, band shells for concerts in the summer, baseball diamonds, a golf course, all connected by roads and Ford motor cars, the ultimate suburban dream.  Ford built modern hospitals with the latest medical technologies and cafeterias serving hamburgers and the best all-American fare.  Workers would be well paid but also punch time cards, wear ID badges, and, true to Ford's American idealistic and puritanical vision, never gamble or drink alcohol, even when off the clock and on their own time.


No one asked the 4,000 Brazilian local natives and the roughneck imported laborers who built the city and worked the rubber plantation if any of these prudish American rules worked for them.

They didn't.

Fordlandia was a dismal failure from the start, with one error piled on top of another like cordwood.  Ford never hired anyone who knew anything about actually growing rubber trees.  Most of the trees planted quickly died. The local workers were accustomed to sleeping during the brutal noon summer heat and thrived on parties where sobriety was not part of the mix.  There were riots, sabotage, and nothing but frustration.  The rains turned Ford's roads into quagmires.  Very little rubber was ever produced.  Henry Ford never bothered to visit the city named after him.


By 1945, synthetic rubber made the entire purpose of Fordlandia obsolete.  Henry Ford's grandson sold the entire property back to Brazil at a loss of more than $200 million---on just the land alone.  The whole history of Fordlandia was forgotten, until recently one great author decided to write a book.


FORDLANDIA:  THE RISE AND FALL OF HENRY FORD'S FORGOTTEN JUNGLE CITY by author Greg Grandin is one of the most fascinating real estate development books I have ever read.  On top of that accomplishment, his work gives you a glimpse into the brilliant but also twisted mind of Henry Ford like no previous biography ever has.

How could a legendary entrepreneur like Henry Ford with so many grand ideas come up with this one so horribly wrong and insane from the start?  Real estate wonks will love the discussions about the building and (mis)management of Fordlandia.  This stunning book reads like fiction because, quite frankly, you can't make up stories so bizarre like these in a novel.  I devoured this book page after page, simply mesmerized.


This book also takes you to the ruins of Fordlandia which still exist.  Locals still live in Henry Ford's Cape Cod homes and drive along his crumbling suburban streets.  The legacy of his rubber dream is now fodder for adventurists who cruise the rivers of the Amazon jungle in search of rusting dreams.

I can't praise Greg Grandin's book enough for telling the story of this forgotten chapter of American capitalism, likely one of the worst and most doomed real estate developments ever to take place in human history.

A must read book.  Don't miss this one.  Here is an interview with author Greg Grandin and the legacy of Fordlandia.  Watch both parts of the interview.  The second part has documentary footage from 1944 of what Fordlandia really looked like in its day, at least what the Ford Motor Company wanted the world to believe it was.  Absolutely fascinating vintage footage.



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