In the remote Amazon rainforest of Brazil, Henry Ford's abandoned industrial town is seeing a small revival.
Photograph: The collections of Henry Ford
The Brazilian jungle has long been under siege by mankind. Between the overuse of its resources and clear-cutting the land for cattle ranching, there's always been a battle waging for some piece the Amazon. The rubber trees in the forest are no exception and were subject to one industrial capitalist who was in desperate need of their resource. Henry Ford was building cars on his innovative assembly line in the early 1900's when the British control of rubber from Sri Lanka made it difficult and expensive for him to acquire. The jungle held the answer to his manufacturing setback with its acres of untouched Brazilian rainforest. Ford, ever optimistic in his utopian idea of an industrial town, and on the heels of his failed attempt at a similar situation in Alabama, set out to clear the land and build an entire city based on processing rubber.
Between 1928 and 1930 the initial building projects were underway for Fordlândia, but not without obstacles including inaccessibility to the construction site, lack of supplies and workers, and violent riots between employees due to these stresses. When the town water tower was finally completed, it stood as a symbol of renewed progress for Ford and his American Dream being carved out of the forest. The city grew and prospered after improvements to the health and educational facilities, and continued to expand to the needs of growing numbers of people. The farming initiative for the rubber trees, however, did not take off promptly as Ford had hoped.
The native tree species, Hevea brasiliensis, thrived on its own, but when planted close together, proved susceptible to various diseases and blight. While the revolutionary new assembly line worked for the Ford Motor Company at home, it didn't thrive in the rainforest as it had been expected to. Even a botanist brought in to assist with the agricultural problems yielded little results, and he vanished quietly from the budding town after just a year.
After a decade of semi-successful attempts in the rubber industry in Brazil, including a second manufacturing plant development called Belterra, Fordlândia was eventually sold back to the Brazilian government by Henry Ford II, grandson and heir to the Ford business empire. Belterra grew slowly, much the same way as its predecessor, and produced rubber only until the 1940's. The efforts were mostly in vain for both towns, as WWII brought further disruption to operating the small cities.
The 1934 abandonment was quick in the American suburb-styled town of Fordlândia, and personal items were left behind in houses and commercial buildings. The area is not entirely abandoned though, about 2000 residents, including former workers families, have taken occupancy of the structures that are still intact. A tour company based in Santarém even boasts its multiple day tour as one of the best and only like it; boating, hiking and driving tourists to Fordlândia and nearby Belterra for photo excursions.
Will this invigorate the current towns with economic and cultural growth enough to build beyond what's left of the towns? Or will tourism provide just enough revenue to sustain what's left of the areas as they are, partially reclaimed and the rest rotting? For now it remains, preserving in its state of decay the memory of industrial entrepreneur Henry Ford's vision for a Midwestern town in the Amazon rainforest.
Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images
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