Henry's Fordlandia Flop
August 21, 2006 5:38 AM   Subscribe

In the 1930's, Henry Ford transplanted a tiny piece of America—complete with picket fences, fire hydrants, poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs—into the Amazon rain forest. Fordlândia was to be the largest rubber tree plantation on the planet (over 70 million rubber tree seedlings) providing material for the millions of tires Ford Motor Company needed. It flopped. So he tried again, downriver a bit, with Belterra. It flopped, too. By 1945, Ford threw in the towel having lost over $20 million, or roughly $200 million in modern dollars.
posted by CodeBaloo (10 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
$200 million isn't really that much to lose for a big corporation like that on some crazy scheme.
posted by delmoi at 7:01 AM on August 21, 2006

I also liked how Edison wasted most of his fortune building cement plants on the belief that we'd start to make all out houses out of 100% cement. Apparently there are still a few cement Edison houses around New Jersey... nice, but still, it doesn't take a genius to see that that one wasn't going to take off.
posted by GuyZero at 7:08 AM on August 21, 2006

Good to see Ford Motor is doing so well now after those failures...
posted by wfc123 at 7:24 AM on August 21, 2006

history has repeatedly shown that obscene wealth gives one the privilege– perhaps even the obligation– to make bizarre and astonishing mistakes on a grand scale

I also liked how Edison wasted most of his fortune building cement plants

People who self-identify as money-making entrepreneurs commonly hit it big, sometimes after years of effort and all, and then try for the rest of their careers to repeat the experience, to no avail. They'll try other business ventures or forays into politics or the arts and yes, sometimes oddball social engineering experiments. The general idea is that with enough money you can buy your way into anything.

There are certainly exceptions but the only pattern that seems to work reliably is: hit it big at something, then turn to charity to get the same buzz, the same sense of accomplishment. Bill Gates' trajectory is a fine recent example.
posted by scheptech at 7:38 AM on August 21, 2006

I remember the museum was really cool when I was a kid. Greenfield Village had an outdoor penny arcade that for a six year old was like being inside a raindrop in heaven.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:47 AM on August 21, 2006

Actually, he tried a third time, but it burned down, fell over, and sank in the swamp.

Then it flopped.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2006

Is this what inspired the town in the movie "Big Fish"?
posted by jpf at 8:40 AM on August 21, 2006

Brazil is full of little living time capsules like this.

In the six years I lived there. I visited many of such places like Ford’s experiment. In fact, I discovered that one can time travel there and visit any era of history one might like in Brazil. It's all there for the taking, from the Stone Age to the Wild West.

There are places where Indians fight miners, cowboys, and settlers, as the railroad pushes into their territory. The cowboys carry guns. A tribe actually attacked a train with stone-tipped arrows while I was there. The feudal system where poor people come as property with the farm land one buys is still alive and well there. Sadly, I never made it to Ford Land but heard a good deal about the place.

I once heard that one of the reasons for the Ford project failing was they used American building materials and methods. Ford, evidently foolishly ignored the Brazilian climate. Many of the classic wooden houses and factory structures were quickly eaten by jungle termites. He also trashed a massive chunk of the rainforest.

There is another community that is called something like American Land, Amerlandia I think. It was built by Southern slave owners. Slavery was legal in Brazil for 30 years after it was abolished in the U.S. Plantation owners packed up their slaves, moved to Brazil, built their classic plantation houses and did business after the civil war. People I've met who visited this area said there was little one could easily see the place today. I drove through once and it just looked like rural Brazil. I guess one can find an occasional taste of Mississippi in the area—antebellum pillared mansions, cotton gins, and lawn jockeys, but I missed them.

I did visit a number of European and religious communities in Brazil where people still speak antiquated dialects of their home countries' language. Gypsies still travel with horses in those colorful wagons, and make camps about the countryside.

German colonies are common in the south where one would think they were in Minnesota in 1950--Ford tractors driven by blue-eyed blond kids, Lassie following to the corn field, life coming and going by the kitchen door. Just don't mention "The War" as they refer to World War Two.

There is a place, a Hobbit-like valley I’m told, where Hippies from all over the world gathered and still thrive. They came in the Sixties and built experimental housing, huts, tree houses, teepees, and live off the land. This place is on my must visit list should I go back to Brazil. Anywhere in Brazil, however, Hippies continue to live as they once did here. Long hairs are often seen in old VW buses, as they sell crafts along the coast.

In another colony some Danish cult goes about living in the nude, worshiping the sun, and believing their food must only be eating in sunlight. Ah, I miss Brazil.
posted by BillyElmore at 9:42 AM on August 21, 2006 [6 favorites]

It woulda worked except for the ants moving them all over.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:02 PM on August 21, 2006

People who self-identify as money-making entrepreneurs commonly hit it big, sometimes after years of effort and all, and then try for the rest of their careers to repeat the experience, to no avail.

I've heard the same thing said about prize winning scientists.. I think it comes down to the fact that you are combining a huge amount of luck into the equation (more luck than smarts? 50-50? who knows..). Meanwhile, I heard a talk by a very interesting economist who said "If you try, you might succeed, if you don't, you will fail." (emphasis his, more or less)
posted by Chuckles at 9:37 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

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