By on February 21, 2017

Fordlandia

Welcome to the Paradise of Fordlândia. Three rules: no booze, no Jews, and we want to check your junk now and then.

Well, those were the rules (one of them unwritten) when the Brazilian town, hacked out of the jungle in 1928, was at its peak. Abandoned by Ford Motor Company in 1945, the bizarre utopian industrial and social experiment remains, slowly decomposing and encroached upon by vegetation, on the shores of an Amazonian backwater.

It is here, along the Tapajós river, that revolutionary industrialist and noted oddball Henry Ford created his rubber-producing settlement in the image of a modern Michigan city. Thanks to one enterprising reporter who probably owns a dog-eared copy of Heart of Darkness, we can now see what the failed experiment looks like in 2017.

To craft an in-depth piece for The New York Times, Latin American reporter Simon Romero traveled upriver to visit Fordlândia, where workers, inspected regularly for venereal disease, once staged a mutiny to protest the incessant eating of oatmeal. (I’ve always said the human brain needs meat in its diet.)

Romero does a fine job describing Ford’s vision for his mostly local workers, which included a ban on alcohol and a puritan approach to life. Outside of the home, Ford attempted to remold the environment, sending out teams to kill stray dogs, drain mosquito-breeding water and generally keep the place ship-shape.

Of course, like most utopian endeavors, Fordlândia eventually fell victim to the dream’s Kryptonite: reality. The jungle couldn’t really be tamed, and neither could man’s urges. Economics proved another sore point.

While much of the settlement has since fallen victim to age and weather, eaten up by the jungle, many homes withstood the test of time. Classy, stucco-and-tile-roof bungalows house many of the town’s remaining 2,000 occupants. The factories and surrounding plantations, which once served as Ford’s personal rubber supply before blight and overseas competition made it unprofitable, sit silently. A 100-bed hospital designed by Detroit’s Albert Kahn lies in ruins.

The town once had more. Much more. Ford built a swimming pool, movie theater, tennis courts and a golf course — everything a young, red-blooded man needed to take his mind off a daily diet of working, poetry, brown rice and absolutely no booze. Okay, maybe not everything.

Many of those who remain in Fordlândia enjoy the peace and quiet, seeing it as a low-cost way to live out the rest of their lives. Squatters take pride in home “ownership” — it’s the only reason the homes haven’t been destroyed by looters — and eke out an existence, either by waiting for the social assistance checks to arrive, or through low-key farming.

“Nothing happens here, and that’s how I like it,” said Joaquim Pereira da Silva, 73, who moved to Fordlândia 20 years ago. “The Americans had no idea about rubber but they knew how to build things to last.”

Backpacking in Europe or hitting the beaches of Thailand is boring and predictable and your friends would secretly hate you for it. If you like riverboats and damp things, and have a few weeks off this year, you now know where to go for a relaxing, Zen-like vacation.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

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33 Comments on “Henry Ford’s Bizarre Utopian Jungle Town Is a Creepy Vacation Spot...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Welcome to the Paradise of Fordlândia. Three rules: no booze, no Jews, and we want to check your junk now and then.

    That’s no paradise – if there’s any justice paradise has booze and a very quality delicatessen.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I’m just slightly amazed there’s seemingly no graffiti on that water tower.
    You’d at least expect “State Futbol Champs 1928” or something.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    “once staged a mutiny to protest the incessant eating of oatmeal”

    There were people of that era that believed things like oatmeal suppressed sexual desire. Cornflakes were believed to suppress the urge to “spank the monkey”.This is a jungle story after all ;)

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    Finalmente vocês acharam esse lugar.

  • avatar
    mikehgl

    You can visit abandoned Ford factories in Michigan. No need to leave the country. One interesting example is in the u.p. of Michigan at Pequaming, on the shores of Lake Superior. Henry Ford purchased 400,000 acres of land in the area, including the entire town. It is now one of the largest ghost towns in the u.p.
    http://www.mikelclassen.com/Pequaming_-_Ghost_Town.php

    • 0 avatar
      mason

      Neat story. There is a small settlement called Buford (I think it was originally named Ft Sanders) east of my folks in Wyoming. First settled in the 1860’s. It was the first RR stop in Albany county and there are still fragments of that settlement scattered around the countryside.

      I’ve also got memories of playing in an old one room log cabin school house in Boulder, WY. My grandparents owned a ranch 15 miles outside of Boulder, population 50ish, on a road fittingly named Paradise Road.

      http://www.sublette.com/history/historicbuildings/boulderschoolhouse.htm

      This of course before the oil fields came in and changed the scenery forever.

    • 0 avatar

      Michigan Tech operates a conference center, museum, and research forest on the site of one of Henry Ford’s sawmills in Alberta.

      http://www.mtu.edu/forest/fordcenter/

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      Why go all the way to the UP to see an abandoned factory town…just drive to Lansing.

  • avatar
    Hector Scorn

    “(I’ve always said the human brain needs meat in its diet.)”

    It really doesn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      It needs protein and fat, but these can be obtained from non-animal sources.

      With that said, I still enjoy eating meat.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      It needs fat. When I went through the survival portion of Sapper School with the Army we were told that were you to attempt to live off only rabbits you would lose cognitive function over time because the meat didn’t contain enough fat. Not sure how long one would have to be on the run for that to happen, but the fat bit was addressed…you do need it be it from animals or other sources. I ended up eating a rooster and some delicious grubs over that time.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I’d like to see photos of the remaining homes & etc……
    .
    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Just do a Google image search for Fordlândia; tons of pictures come up, including the houses. The former hospital:

      https://sanguesuoreseringais.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/ontem-e-hoje-hospital-de-fordlandia/

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Ronnie did a piece on Fordlândia awhile back; but I just now realized something. It was the plant I worked at for a few years and others like that did Fordlândia in.

    Prior to WWII, the only source for rubber was natural rubber from rubber plantations like Fordlândia and the ones in Indochina. But when the Japanese captured those, the United States built several plants that made synthetic rubber from Styrene and Butadiene. Butadiene is a natural byproduct of the oil refining process, so they were all built next to oil refineries in Odessa, TX; Port Neches, TX, I think Lake Charles, LA; and other locations around the world.

    Once the war ended, there was plenty of natural and synthetic rubber available, so it no longer made sense to keep Fordlândia going; that would explain the 1945 closing date. About 50% of car tires are made from various types of SBR today.

    The plant I worked at is in Port Neches, and when B.F. Goodrich originally built it, it was the largest in the world. Half of the plant was shut down in 2000 and finally demolished in 2006; the SBR process in that half was cooled with liquid ammonia from a plant across a road inside the plant. It was always feared that a truck would turn the wrong way and hit the pipe bridge that carried the ammonia pipes, causing a major disaster (there was an elementary school and houses across the street.) The currently active side uses something else to cool it; I think brine.

    I picked up three steam powered pumps that were removed from the plant during the demolition and plant cleanup process; one pump still has it’s government asset tag from the war. Due to wartime shortages used equipment was also installed; the builder’s plates on doors of the boilers in the long-closed boilerhouse had dates of 1915-1917. I also grabbed a set of those before the boilerhouse was demolished.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Interesting story…I bet there was no shortage of cleanup needed at that plant when all was said and done.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it was Torchinsky who did the Fordlandia thing.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        Ronnie;

        Sorry for the confusion, I found the article:

        http://gizmodo.com/on-henry-fords-150th-birthday-a-look-inside-his-failed-965248212

        It appeared on another social media site at the same time you were writing a lot of articles on the history of Ford and the D3; my brain linked them together and attributed it to you.

        Anyway, it confirms my hunch that the synthetic rubber plants developed and built during the war brought Fordlandia to an end. In the comments section of the article, someone gives this link to a flickr site with more pictures:

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/albums/72157623342733670

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    “Nothing happens here, and that’s how I like it”

    My Brother!

  • avatar
    peeryog

    This is like my childhood, but on a much grander scale. When I was two my Dad worked for Bethlehem Steel and the company moved him to an iron ore mine in the jungle not far from the Orinoco River in Venezuela .

    The town was a tiny perfect enclave of American life plunked down into dense, green jungle. There was a school with American teachers, a church, hospital, a commissary that sold American goods and a club house with baseball diamonds, two pools, tennis courts, bowling alley, bar, restaurant and twice weekly movie theater. All surrounded by tidy homes on suburban lots. After school we hung out in the jungle, climbed vines and made forts with machetes. It was , in hindsight, magical.

    The company was first nationalized and then the mine ran out of oar. Bethlehem Steel has long closed. The remains of the town are there. The homes are still occupied by Venezuelans but the mine buildings and anciliary structure are long gone, the train tracks torn up and the jungle is steadily consuming all again.

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      Did your Dad stay on after it was nationalized? If so, that had to have been highly strange. Was your transition back Stateside smooth?

      Very interesting story and connection to this article.

      • 0 avatar
        peeryog

        Thanks for asking.

        Yes he did for a while. Even when the mine was nationalized the government contracted Bethlehem Steel to run it, so in many ways things remained the same. The only thing different was they started to hire Venezuelans in the management positions so you had a neat mix of cultures. The transition was no problem as the school was American in nature and focused on American history , geography and so on. By grade 6 everyone had to correctly identify and spell each state capital. Snow was weird though when I came back.

        • 0 avatar
          OldManPants

          “Snow was weird though when I came back.”

          Heh… master of understatement.

          I wonder if your Dad had occasion to visit Bethlehem’s Burns Harbor, IN plant in my old stomping grounds.

          • 0 avatar
            peeryog

            More than likely. They did fly him back to the States about once a year for training and updates and I’m sure that they would have included the Burns Plant. I’ll check with him next time I see him.

            And I’m Canadian. He was the sole Canadian there, having been working at the Marmora site in Ontario and jumped at the opportunity to move somewhere warm. But it has left me with a deep and abiding love for Americans. The people there were typically engineers, geologists and so on. They were smart, very friendly and had a real ability to adapt to any situation thrown at them. You had the impression they could do anything they set their minds to. They treated the Venezuelans with respect, most of them learned Spanish and adapted a lot of the local customs along with their own uniquely American heritage. I never once saw an incidence of the “Ugly American”.

          • 0 avatar
            OldManPants

            What a marvelous career he seems to have had. Major steel companies provided tremendous work/study opportunities even for hourlies who qualified but that began unravelling in the mid-’70s.

            I really miss that culture of massive manufacturing and collegial can-do.

  • avatar
    RobertRyan

    Where is the strict Nurses and all those dark haired identical blue eyed boys?

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The story is similar to a number of commodity based settlements.

    This experiment failed for two reasons. The first is the freedoms denied to the occupants and the second was the poor location of the settlement.

    A third problem would of been money or the earning potential of the settlers. There would be no chance in striking it rich.

    Most settlements throughout history fade away. Look at Detroit. In 1 000 years how many current cities will still be around?

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      I think Detroit is done shrinking. It won’t ever be 1962 Detroit, but I don’t think it is going anywhere either. The parts that remain in use are on the upswing it seems from my visits but yes, a significant chunk is returning to nature.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      And I’d put money on Naples Italy being there in 1000 years…if I recall from my time there it had been inhabited for 5000 or so years. My buddies apartment had a 2000 year old wall.

      And Atlanta will still be here. They need at least another 1000 years to finish the road construction. Falcons still won’t have a Super Bowl though (I am a Falcons fan so I can trash talk and after blowing a 25 point 4th quarter lead it will always be too soon)

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    There’s a pretty good book by Greg Grandin about Fordlandia and, by extension, Henry Ford at the height of his influence. Recommended.

    The settlement failed because it never managed to produce rubber in significant quantities.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Correct, and the synthetic rubber industry that rose up stateside during the war made it redundant; had WWII not came about and the synthetic rubber industry with it, Fordlandia may have lasted a little longer.

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