Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin [Book Review]

I have read a few books on industry or other topics of the first half of the 20th century where the huge figure of Henry Ford has been mentioned. This was my first read focused on Ford and the Ford empire as operated by its founder. He was a complicated visionary who was, in some respects, ahead of the times, while woefully behind in others.

He popularized mass production techniques and valued zero-landfill operations (planks from incoming shipping crates were used for running boards for his trucks and he started Kingsford Charcoal with the leftovers). He foresaw industrial applications for agricultural products (in 1935 it was reported that two bushels of soybeans went into every car). He preached the benefits of healthy living (he was a proponent of soy, oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain breads, and Prohibition), but the work required in his factories could be mentally and physically grueling. He paid high wages and provided health care and schooling for employees and families, but violently fought the formation of unions. He made his money by revolutionizing manufacturing, but did not like change (the Model T ran essentially unchanged for 19 years). He was a man of fascinating contradictions.

This massive project, well researched and chronicled in this book, is a peek into the world of how Henry ran things. While striving, ruthlessly at times, to increase the pace of production (he implemented forced speed-ups of production lines) he also wanted to preserve "American values," such as agricultural ways, self-sufficiency, and old-time dances. He wanted employees to farm off-the-job and factories to build inventory so that they could shut down during the planting and harvest seasons, allowing the employees to go home and tend their fields.

From The Truth About Henry Ford by Sarah T. Bu...
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He built company towns where every employee had the same style house and usually included a plot to grow their own vegetables. Ford ran many village-industry projects, though most were in Michigan, such as Alberta, Pequaming, and Tecumseh.

The Lessons of Fordlandia

Despite being an interesting chapter of history, there is plenty to learn that is applicable today - especially for engineers or businesses working abroad. Many of the missteps that contributed to the ultimate demise of this project can still be seen in action.

The plan was drawn up and investment made without a fundamental understanding of the process. In the wild, individual latex trees (Hevea Brasiliensis) grow in isolation preventing disease and parasites from transferring from tree to tree. Few trees in close proximity to an infected tree survive infection. Asian tree farms operate with high density planting because while the trees were imported from Brazil, their enemies were not.

Appropriate expertise was not applied to planning or operations. A trained botanist was not involved in the project. The farms were planned and built by people without any experience with the local plants or climate.

Without an understanding of the culture and motivations of a population it is extremely difficult to train and develop a quality labor force. Basic concepts such as time pitted labor against management. The locals timed their work and travel to avoid the brutal heat of the day and many did not know what a watch was. Ford erected a large clock in the town and required everyone to clock in and out according to a Midwestern schedule. Turnover was high and uprisings common.

Design and build without considering local conditions. The town and worker residences were built to look like a Midwestern town. Ventilation, key to surviving the heat, was not a design feature. Concrete structures absorbed the sun, capturing all the daytime heat, and making work difficult. Timber harvesting, intended to create cash flow while the rubber trees were reaching maturation, was unsuccessful. Improperly handled and protected lumber warped or rotted in the humidity.

Poor troubleshooting. Failed crops were replanted with the hope that they would not fail the next time. When failure was acknowledged, changes were based on misinformation or hunches, not an examination of the failure. There was no organized feedback as management hoarded information (to prevent others from learning of the failure) or returned home; future changes were often unrelated to past changes. Towards the end of the project, real progress was achieved with hybrid plants, but it was too late, as discussed in the following point.

Best laid plans cannot overcome poor timing. Success in business, as with comedy, is heavily dependent on timing. The Asian plantations continued to be highly efficient and profitable - even if Fordlandia was on the path to success it was, optimistically, still years from being competitive. Add into the mix that the end of WWII sent the supply of commodities soaring faster than demand. Rubber prices dropped even further with inexpensive petroleum-based rubber now on the market. Even if the project made sense when it was started, there was little evidence that it could be anything other than a money pit.

In the end I think that Henry Ford saw himself as an enlightened industrialist who was a kind of a father figure to his employees. He reminds me of James Arnold Ross, the industrialist in Oil! by Upton Sinclair. He tried to do the right thing for his employees while still keeping the profits and not really understanding the problems of the employees. Ford was trying to make things better, but without an organized plan or true understanding the web of interconnecting effects, it was like fighting quicksand. Sometimes he made problems worse. He forged the way for modern American industry and left us with many lessons to learn from.

Can you name any current visionaries that can compare to Henry Ford?


What is it now? Sounds interesting but I wonder what the indigenous people did with the stuff that is there. Or does his estate still own the property? Hm. I'd have to look this up for sure.

Robert S's picture

The land was returned to the government for an amount that basically paid for the remaining employees unemployment benefits. There are people living there currently, some farming but no industrial uses. There is a little tourism in the area also.