Traveling through thick Brazilian jungle up the Tapajós River, one arrives at a shockingly out-of-place tableau. Amid the monkeys and macaws stand the overgrown ruins of an abandoned American suburb, complete with houses surrounded by white picket fences, fire hydrants and a golf course. It’s Pleasantville dropped in the middle of the rainforest.
Industrialist Henry Ford created his slice of Americana in the Amazon in the late 1920s. Troubled by the high price of rubber, Ford decided to build his own rubber plantation in the middle of the Amazon forest.
Ford bought over 6 million acres of Brazilian land and shipped in employees from Michigan to manage the model town named Fordlândia. Its workers—both American and Brazilian—were forced to live according to Ford's strict, teetotaling rules: no smoking, no drinking, and compulsory wholesome activities on the weekends such as poetry readings and singalongs.
The employees quickly became disgruntled. The Brazilians didn’t appreciate having to wear nametags, eat hamburgers, and learn square dancing, while the Midwestern managers of the plantation had trouble adjusting to the jungle climate and ever-present malaria. Strikes, knife fights, and mayhem became the rule. In 1930 the Brazilian workforce had enough and rioted, chasing the American managers out of Fordlândia with machetes.
Worst of all, the rubber saplings planted by Ford—without the help of a trained botanist—were barely growing. Those that had taken root were soon hit by a catastrophic leaf blight. Fordlândia was officially a failure.
Henry Ford retired from the rubber industry in 1945, having not produced a single piece of rubber worthy of his cars.
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