Patrick Gibson's Reviews > Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
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Nov 15, 09

bookshelves: history, truth_sort-of
Read in November, 2009

“What happened here?”

I say that a lot.

For a person who likes decay and ruin, New Mexico is an entropy-enthusiasts wet dream. My hobby is exploring ghost towns. Love ‘em, and can’t explain why. You want to find a town taken off the maps a century ago? Chances are I can take you there.

The other morning, I was getting my hit of and came across a picture of an abandoned street of perfectly preserved clapboard houses complete with porches and picket fences. The caption read ‘Fordlandia.’
What? In the friggin Amazon? Are you kidding me? Oh man. Me want now go there.

But, maybe I should read the book first.
In the 1920’s Harvey Firestone controlled world wide production of rubber. In an attempt to be free of this monopoly, Henry Ford bought a swath of land in the Amazon the size of Tennessee. Not only did he plan to harvest rubber on a massive scale, he planned on developing a utopian community with high moral standards, living with Christian values living white Cape Cod houses placed along paved streets circling Main Street repeat with churches, country stores, movie theaters and ice cream parlors.
By the 1920’s Dearborn, MI had been decimated by the massive scale of Ford’s industrialization. He even hired well known architects to design new factories, photographers to try and make them look arty to the outside world and artists (Diego Rivera) to prettify some of the walls. But to no avail. It was ugly, debilitating and demoralizing on an enormous scale. Ford had begun the quirky obsession of thinking back to earlier times before the gargantuan factories (that he built) ruined the landscape. He started collecting Americana from the 19th century. When his chance to start over appeared with his acquisition of nice size portion of Brazil he ordered architects to start drawing up maps of his impression of the ideal American town.

The entire project seems to be ill-conceived. The boats were too big to reach the land by river; the slash and burn method of clearing the land left rubble that still required heavy equipment; the land was supposed to be mosquito free—it wasn’t; Ford’s engineers had to steal the rubber tree seeds—they stole the wrong ones; the promised labor force never materialized—the ‘hunter/gatherer’ indigenous population could have given a rats ass for $6 a day; and on and on.

This tale if dystopian malaise is told from two perspectives: the actual mismanaged events occurring in the jungle—and the perception of these events in the mind of Mr. Ford.
The book is full of details that make you shake your head and utter “what were they thinking?” The houses for example had cement floors, tin roofs and screens on the windows. They were ovens that kept the bug IN. Ford managers couldn’t figure out why they families lived in the yards. The lumber Ford was going to sell for profit until the rubber trees were ready to produce was hard and green. As soon as it was felled, it started rotting. Every employee had to take a daily dose of quinine which had deleterious effects. Managers lasted only a few months before replacements would have to be sent from Michigan.

There’s no doubt this is a fascinating story. With a good story teller, this would be a rip-snorter with all the political intrigue, riots, and one disaster after another. Unfortunately this author has told a great story in dry witless manor. I don’t think it possible to be more boring. This is a 20th Century ‘Fitzcarraldo’ for gosh sakes. So many times I thought ‘there are some great missed opportunities to tell events in an interesting way.’ I wanted it to be better. I wanted David McCullough.

Great bit of history. Lackluster writing.
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message 1: by Sabiel (new) - added it

Sabiel Or Timothy Egan, perhaps?

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