Nature reclaiming its own
In the mid-1920s, Henry Ford was granted a piece of land the size of Connecticut from the government of Brazil. On this land, the Ford company would plant and harvest rubber, as well as build housing for thousands of employees. They would create their own world, supplying the industrial needs of company, while recreating life in America in the middle of a jungle. They called the settlement Fordlandia.
It was not the first attempt by Henry Ford to create a town. In 1918 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he had tried to build a community around nitrate manufacturing, powered by hydroelectricity.
In Muscle Shoals, Ford was keen to create a town modeled on the Garden City movement, a place that residents could tend their own land (when they weren’t busy working for Ford). He hoped to build a 75 mile long city, with the industrial parts spread out along one side, with each house accorded enough land to farm. His factories would be powered by hydro, his workers would have the benefits of town and rural life.
As I noted in a review of a book about the doomed Electric City:
Ford was only half-right in his urban planning. In the decades to come, people would flock to suburbs and exurbs, but few would want to come home from an eight-hour day at the factory to plough a half-acre or tend a family cow. New large-scale industrial farms brought affordable food that turned growing your own grub into a niche hobby rather than a way of life.
After years of wrangling with the authorities, Muscle Shoals plan collapsed, and the land went to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But Ford would have another chance to create a company town utopia, this time in another country. In 1934, the New York Times wrote about the project in glowing terms.
As they described it, “Out of the Brazilian jungle there rises a monumental enterprise created by Yankee ingenuity and dedicated to King Rubber”. Fordlandia was an “oasis in the jungle”, and it would be improving the lives of the workers, described in the same way that missionaries and colonists saw their aims. Note the references to “modern” homes, made of wood: but only for workers who toe the line of Ford’s morality police.
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