Henry Ford built a utopian city inside Brazil's Amazon rainforest that's now a ghost town — take a look around the abandoned city that was once 'Fordlandia'

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordThe Fordlandia water tower with a faded Ford company logo still stands.
  • Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, turned to the Brazilian rainforest in the 1920s to construct a rubber plantation that would serve as his personal supply of the material.
  • The town, dubbed Fordlandia, was more than an industrial operation – it was Ford’s attempt to establish a picturesque American society.
  • Here’s how Fordlandia was founded before falling apart.

Deep inside Brazil’s Amazon rainforest sit the dilapidated remains of what looks like an industrial town. One of the first things you’ll see upon entering is a water tower with a faded Ford logo.

That’s because almost a century ago, the founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, turned that space of land into not only a business operation but a social experiment of sorts.

Here’s how Fordlandia, Ford’s utopian city and industrial town, was founded – and how it fell apart.


If you’ve never heard of Fordlandia before, no worries — Google has. The search engine recognises it easily, tucked away in the Brazilian town of Aveiro.

Google Maps

Source: Google Maps


It’s technically still there — you can find the remnants of it on the banks of the Tapajos River in northern Brazil.

YouTube/BBCFootage from the BBC shows what’s left of Fordlandia.

Source: BBC


It may not look like it nowadays, but decades ago the colony was Ford’s bright and shiny idea for a new kind of industrial operation. And at first, it seemed promising.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: NPR


In the early 1920s, business was booming for Ford in the US. Ford Motor was selling thousands of cars and using massive amounts of rubber for its tires.

Getty ImagesThe automaker next to one of his vehicles.

Source: Atlas Obscura


The Amazon basin was initially the world’s only source of rubber, supplying industrialized Britain and the US with the material.

Wikimedia CommonsA rubber boat in Brazil’s Amazon region.

Source: The Culture Trip


But that changed when a British explorer named Henry Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber seeds out of the South American country to his homeland.

Source: The Culture Trip


Britain planted the seeds in its Southeast Asian colonies, where the rubber crops, free from the insects that infected them in Brazil, thrived.

SSPL/Getty ImagesWickham in 1900.

Source: The Culture Trip


All of a sudden, Britain had replaced Brazil as the titan in the rubber trade, and that worried Ford.

Wikimedia CommonsA rubber plantation in British-ruled Java, Indonesia, in 1915.

Source: The Culture Trip


So for the sake of efficiency, Ford turned to the Amazon rainforest to construct a rubber plantation that would serve as his personal supply of the material.

Source: Gizmodo


He purchased millions of acres from an obliging Brazilian government, which was still licking its wounds from being overturned as the rubber-trade monopoly.

Frederic Lewis/Getty ImagesBrazilian men involved in the rubber trade around 1900, before Ford moved his operation into the Amazon.

Source: Atlas Obscura


And in 1928, he sent his delegates with supplies to the South American country to oversee operations of the plantation.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordFord and others on the MS Lake Ormac in Michigan in 1928, shortly before the project in Brazil began.

Source: Atlas Obscura


Fordlandia was officially founded then, and a sawmill and a water tower were erected. The latter bore the familiar Ford Motor logo.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Henry Ford


Forest was cleared to make way for the rubber crops.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Culture Trip


Ford’s goal was to manufacture 38,000 tons of latex from his rubber farmstead.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura, “99% Invisible


He would then ship the product to his factories in Detroit, Michigan.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Culture Trip


However, land was cleared not just for the rubber plantation, but for a town.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesFordlandia village in the works.

Source: The Culture Trip


Fordlandia was as much a city as it was a business operation.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


Workers and their families lived in employee housing on-site.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


The homes resembled the Midwestern abodes back in the US that Ford was accustomed to.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordA unit in Fordlandia’s employee housing development.

Source: The Culture Trip


Native Brazilians were also among those hired in Fordlandia to work in the factories.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


They lived in the housing complex as well.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesA cottage in Fordlandia.

Source: Atlas Obscura


Ford paid his Fordlandia workers well and incorporated labour practices like time clocks and eight-hour workdays into the settlement’s structure.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordFordlandia workers receiving their wages.

Source: The Henry Ford, “99% Invisible


He also gave them access to amenities and resources while employed in the settlement, like a swimming pool …

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Henry Ford


… a golf course …

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Henry Ford


… and a school.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Henry Ford


The school was the first time many of the indigenous people had access to education.

Source: “99% Invisible


Transportation systems were implemented to get residents around the town.

Source: BBC


And children could participate in Boy Scouts.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordTwo Scouts box.

A Fordlandia cemetery was built (and still exists) …

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Culture Trip


… as was a modern hospital.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Henry Ford


Fordlandia employees received free medical care at the hospital too.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: “99% Invisible


The idea was to not only produce a stockpile of rubber for manufacturing Ford’s vehicles, but cultivate Ford’s idea of the perfect American society based on his morals and ideology.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Culture Trip


But, as NPR reported, despite the seemingly idyllic setup, “the first failure of Fordlandia was social.”

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordA Brazilian being brought to the hospital in Fordlandia to receive treatment.

Source: “99% Invisible,” NPR


Workers were expected to abide by a strict set of rules and labour practices.

Source: NPR


Fordlandia residents were fed a meatless diet, modelled after Ford’s vegetarian eating, and were served things like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and oatmeal.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: NPR


They were pushed to attend poetry readings and English-language-only singing sessions, and alcohol and prostitution were prohibited.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


Many workers railed against those restrictions, and some established a bar and a brothel on a nearby island to let loose after a long day’s work. They called it “the Island of Innocence.”

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordWorkers in Fordlandia in 1934.

Source: “99% Invisible,” The Henry Ford


Ford also built a dance hall in hopes that his Brazilian workers would take to square dancing as much as he had.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura, “99% Invisible


In fact, Ford hoped that Brazilians working in the settlement would adhere to every one of the societal expectations he set.

Source: “99% Invisible


But ultimately, workers clashed culturally with Ford’s American vision of idealism.

Wikimedia CommonsThe sawmill in Fordlandia today.

Source: “99% Invisible


The tipping point came in 1930 when the dining hall stopped its wait service and shifted to a self-serve cafeteria style.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: NPR, “99% Invisible


Workers rioted and destroyed much of Fordlandia, including the time clocks, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

YouTube/BBCA Midwestern-style structure in Fordlandia.

Source: NPR, “99% Invisible


Workers’ ire eventually settled and order was restored, but the cultural discord was just one of many problems that plagued Fordlandia.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: “99% Invisible


Even though they were planted in their species’ native soil (rubber trees are indigenous to Brazil), the plants didn’t thrive.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


When Ford set out on his Brazilian endeavour, he had refused to consult a botanist when planting the foundation of the rubber trees.

YouTube/BBCFordlandia workers clearing land to make room for the rubber plantation.

Source: Atlas Obscura, “99% Invisible


So when he unadvisedly had the first round of rubber trees planted during the hot and dry season, the plants deteriorated.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: The Culture Trip


Ford also made the mistake of having the trees planted in tight rows away from steady water flow, giving fungi and pests plenty of room to wreak havoc on the young buds.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: NPR


As a result, leaf blight set in and destroyed the saplings. The rubber trees produced barely anything, with Fordlandia touting only 750 tons of latex — none of which ever made it into a Ford car.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: NPR, Atlas Obscura


Despite the tremendous failures in Fordlandia’s early years, Ford persisted and funneled more and more money into the project, even moving the settlement downstream for a fresh patch of soil in 1933. He renamed the new section Belterra, but that too failed.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordA seaplane in Fordlandia.

Source: Atlas Obscura, The Henry Ford


As for Ford’s emissaries from Detroit, they also didn’t have it easy. They weren’t accustomed to the hot, humid climate, and their families — particularly their wives — didn’t have much to do.

Image from the Collections of The Henry FordFordlandia managers and workers standing over a sea cow, or manatee, that washed up on shore.

Source: NPR


The final straw came with the advent of synthetic rubber years later, rendering the whole purpose of Fordlandia useless.

Source: Gizmodo


So in 1945, Ford shuttered his once glistening prospective project and sold the land back to the Brazilian government for $US250,000.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford

Source: Atlas Obscura


Overall, the failure amounted to a staggering $US20 million loss (or about $US200 million in today’s dollars).

Wikimedia CommonsFordlandia today.

Source: Atlas Obscura


And throughout the entire venture, Ford never once set foot in Fordlandia — he managed operations from his home in Michigan.

Wikimedia CommonsFord died in 1947, two years after selling Fordlandia back to Brazil.

Source: NPR, History


Now, 80 years later, a deteriorated factory building stands as a reminder of Fordlandia’s failure.


The water tower still boasts a faded Ford logo.


But despite the abandoned structures …


… Fordlandia is home to some 3,000 Brazilians.

Source: The Culture Trip


Most work in the cattle trade or own local businesses.

Source: The Culture Trip


The once modern hospital has crumbled.

Source: Wikimedia


Bats are reportedly the former infirmary’s only occupants.

YouTube/BBCThe decaying hospital in Fordlandia.

Source: BBC


Those curious can take a trip to see the town and stay in a hotel close to the former settlement.

Wikimedia CommonsA house in Fordlandia.

Source: The Culture Trip


If it weren’t for the decomposing structures, Fordlandia might seem like any other rural town in Brazil.

Source: Culture Trip

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