Henry Ford’s Ama­zon colony

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

In­dus­trial boom-and-bust cy­cles have driven the rise and demise of large ar­eas since the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion mech­a­nized the world. Some of the losers in cap­i­tal­ism’s big game can be found in the un­like­li­est of places — such as the Brazil­ian jun­gle.

Up the Ta­pa­jos River, a trib­u­tary to the mighty Ama­zon, Henry Ford es­tab­lished a plan­ta­tion the size of Ten­nessee to pro­duce rub­ber for his au­to­mo­bile busi­ness, which was the world’s largest. As New York Uni­ver­sity as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Greg Grandin ex­plains in “Ford­lan­dia,” Ford Mo­tor Co. planted its stake in the mid­dle of nowhere, 18 hours by boat from the Ama­zonas pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Manaus. This city is 2,716 miles from Rio de Janeiro — the dis­tance be­tween Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and Seat­tle.

In the 1920s, half of all cars in the world were Ford Model Ts. By the time the model was dis­con­tin­ued in 1927, more than 15 mil­lion Tin Lizzies had been sold. The car’s cre­ator, and founder of the com­pany that still bears his name and is run by the Ford fam­ily 106 years later, was the rich­est man in the world. Ford is known as the man who put Amer­ica on wheels be­cause he made it pos­si­ble for the masses to buy cars, which had been the exclusive pre­serve of the wealthy be­fore the ar­rival of the Model T.

As the in­dus­tri­al­ist him­self put it: “I will build a car for the great mul­ti­tude. It will be large enough for the fam­ily, but small enough for the in­di­vid­ual to run and care for [. . . ] it will be so low in price that no man mak­ing a good salary will be un­able to own one — and en­joy with his fam­ily the bless­ing of hours of plea­sure in God’s great open spa­ces.”

Ford was more than an au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer; he also was a so­cial en­gi­neer. He was a strong de­fender of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism who in­sisted that his im­mi­grant work force take cour­ses in English and U.S. his­tory and civics as a job re­quire­ment. His world­view was based on the prin­ci­ple that so­cial revo­lu­tion and chaos could be avoided if the lower classes had bet­ter jobs and a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing. He be­lieved cre­at­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties could al­low the work­ing class to be raised without low­er­ing the in- vestor class.

In 1914, the Wall Street Jour­nal cas­ti­gated Ford for “eco­nomic blun­ders if not crimes” when he in­sti­tuted the un­heard-of wage of $5 per day for an eight-hour work day. The pol­icy wasn’t en­tirely benev­o­lent. Cen­tral to his idea was that pay­ing peo­ple bet­ter wages made it pos­si­ble for them to pur­chase the prod­ucts they made, cre­at­ing mil­lions of new cus­tomers.

Ford could only sell cars to the masses if he could make them cheaper and bet­ter than any­one else. To ac­com­plish this, he stan­dard­ized the as­sem­bly process us­ing in­ter­change­able parts and the mov­ing as­sem­bly line that could churn out a fin­ished au­to­mo­bile ev­ery three min­utes. Vertical in­te­gra­tion, a busi­ness strat­egy in which a com­pany con­trols ev­ery as­pect of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of a prod­uct, meant that Ford had ma­jor hold­ings in count­less sec­tors of the econ­omy.

From start to fin­ish, Ford Mo­tor Co. con­trolled ev­ery step of the process from de­vel­op­ing raw ma­te­ri­als to driv­ing a com­plete au­to­mo­bile off the as­sem­bly line and sell­ing it. And that’s where the Ama­zon comes into play.

The ma­te­rial de­mands of feed­ing mas­sive fac­to­ries sparked a war for re­sources that spanned the globe. In many in­stances, com­pany towns were es­tab­lished where re­sources were lo­cated. Iron City, Mich., was built amid the great forests of the Up­per Penin­sula to pro­vide tim­ber for Ford cars. The prob­lem was rub­ber could not be grown in Michi­gan, and cars re­quire a lot of rub­ber for tires, hoses and nu­mer­ous other parts.

The Bri­tish Em­pire en­joyed a vir­tual mo­nop­oly on rub­ber, which came from its vast colo­nial plan­ta­tions in Malaya. With this mo­nop­oly came the abil­ity to fix prices. Af­ter World War I dev­as­tated the Bri­tish econ­omy, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment cut back on the rub­ber sup­ply to drive up prices, and thus earn­ings for the Ex­che­quer.

In 1925, tire mag­nate Har­vey Fire­stone, Ford’s old­est busi­ness part­ner, begged the most pow­er­ful in­dus­tri­al­ist to help him break up the Bri­tish rub­ber car­tel. Like oil to­day, rub­ber was a choke point for U.S. in­dus­try. Ford’s an­swer was sim­ple: “Grow your own rub­ber!” Thus, the plan was hatched for Ford Mo­tor Co. to grow its own rub­ber. Ford looked at the ef­fort to es­tab­lish a foothold in Brazil as a way to si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­ject com­pe­ti­tion into com­mod­ity mar­kets and es­tab­lish moder­nity in the un­tamed jun­gle. This was his chance to spread his Amer­i­can gospel to the dark­est cor­ners of the world.

In the mid­dle of the wilder- ness, Ford spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to drop a replica of a Mid­west­ern town — that be­came its own au­ton­o­mous state — com­plete with sin­gle-fam­ily bun­ga­lows with in­door plumb­ing, pub­lic schools, a mod­ern hospi­tal, banks, golf cour­ses, its own po­lice, paved streets and even fire hy­drants, which at this time were not even found in most Euro­pean cities. The lo­cals called him “St. Ford” be­cause of his vi­sion and the wages he of­fered.

Man and na­ture con­spired to ruin Ford’s dream of civ­i­liz­ing the Ama­zon. Cor­rupt Brazil­ian oli- garchs drove up prices for any­thing that couldn’t be shipped from the United States. Left­ists fo­mented worker re­volts, which had a long his­tory in a re­gion long trou­bled by class war­fare.

But the most se­ri­ous trou­ble was that Brazil sim­ply could not pro­duce rub­ber as ef­fi­ciently as Malayan forests. Al­though not na­tive to South­east Asia, rub­ber trees pro­duced a much larger yield in Malaya than in their nat­u­ral Brazil­ian habi­tat be­cause their nat­u­ral preda­tors — bugs and birds — don’t ex­ist there. In 1945, less than 20 years af­ter be­ing founded, Ford­lan­dia was aban­doned.

The de­cay and grad­ual dis­ap­pear­ance of Henry Ford’s jun­gle city now is play­ing out in ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters all across Amer­ica’s in­dus­trial Mid­west. Detroit, once one of the world’s rich­est cities and the home­own­er­ship cap­i­tal of the world, is be­com­ing a ghost town like Ford­lan­dia.

Brett M. Decker, manag­ing ed­i­tor for the Opin­ion Pages at The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a for­mer as­sem­bly-line worker for Ford Mo­tor Co.

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