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Originally published Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Fordlandia:" Henry Ford's rubber match

"Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City " is Latin American historian Greg Grandin's account of the cities Ford, hoping to mass produce rubber for car tires, built in the Brazilian jungle, and how the tropics brought his ambitious plans to grief.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City"

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books, 432 pp., $27.50

Henry Ford was the transforming industrialist of his time. Disdaining experts, Ford's way was to clear his mind and see a problem as new. He believed in getting to work and learning by doing. It is how he created the Ford Motor Co.

It was also how, from the late 1920s through the Depression, Ford came to build two American-like towns in the Amazon, spending the equivalent of $300 million.

His aim was to produce rubber for car tires. The Amazon was the original home of rubber trees, which were scattered in the jungle and tapped by lonely men who lived in huts. Ford envisioned millions of trees planted in rows, tended by employees who lived in company towns. The British had created rubber plantations in Malaya, and Ford didn't see why he couldn't do it in Brazil.

Ford sent his people there to learn by doing. They did, as is told by Greg Grandin in "Fordlandia."

That was the name of the first of Ford's two towns, and the one built from scratch. It was envisioned, Grandin writes, as "a shiny American town with neat houses, clean streets, shops and a town square." It also had malarial mosquitoes, biting flies, venomous snakes and vampire bats.

The story of Fordlandia is so outlandish that it is tempting to make sneering comparisons to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" or Werner Herzog's 1972 film, "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," and to Marxian theories of imperialism. Grandin's politics lean left, and he does end the book with a blast at capitalism. But he sees much in Ford to like.

Ford wanted to replace the subsistence economy, in which rubber tappers, perpetually in debt, used balls of smoked tree sap to pay for a pittance in goods. Ford offered cash wages and provided workers with clean water, sanitary housing, day care, wholesome recreation, and a free hospital for employees and their families.

The story of Fordlandia, Grandin writes, is "more Mark Twain than Joseph Conrad."

Ford's social engineering also had a controlling aspect. Ford ordered his managers in the Amazon to stamp out whoring and drink, and to instruct the Brazilians in sanitary and wholesome living. In December 1930, they rioted and tore the place apart. What set them off was the insistence by Ford, who was something of a health nut, that single employees buy meals that included oatmeal, canned peaches, whole-wheat bread and unmilled rice.

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Grandin is a historian of Latin America, and that area is where he shines — telling of the relationship of Ford with Brazilian politicians, the rise and fall of the rubber-tapper economy and the nonindustrial culture of the Brazilian workers.

What doomed Fordlandia and its sister city, Belterra, was biology. It was not only the rubber tree that was native to Brazil, but the mites, flies, ants, weevils, moths, roaches, grasshoppers, locusts and caterpillars that fed on it. The bugs had evolved to find rubber trees scattered in the jungle, and for them, a plantation of them was a king's table. The Ford workers declared war on them, and the bugs won.

As a business venture, Fordlandia was a total loss. As business history, its story is fabulous. Grandin tells it with sympathy — for the Brazilians chafing under the dictates of Henry Ford, and for the forlorn Americans, swatting flies, dreaming of Michigan and wondering what on Earth they were doing in the Amazon.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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