One reason why the world is populated over so much of its land mass is the desire of humans to find nirvana or a better place to live within their own community sharing common values – and often groups of like-minded people have started afresh. The Quakers did it and even in the 1960s Belgium had a new town built to allow two groups to live separately: Leuven (the Flemish/Dutch old town) and Louvain-la-Neuve (the French new town).
In the 1920s Henry Ford decided it was time to build his idea of nirvana with the citizens obeying his moral standards. When he started the second Ford company (see my article on Henry Leland) he made sure that his workers were looked after, paid reasonably well and were educated where necessary to ensure they built quality products. Like the Quakers before (Cadbury and Rowntree for example), Ford wanted to encourage good conditions – hoping this would pay off in increased sales through better product and also the fact that people respected him for his work.
Detroit was already booming with factories that made Ford cars and other components and so on a visit to Alabama, Ford announced that he was going to create a new city around the township of Muscle Shoals. The Government had commissioned a dam on the Tennessee River to power nitrate factories and Ford announced a huge city with 1 million workers building cars and components. He offered to lease the dam from the Government and the resulting excitement meant a mini gold rush of people flooding in, new farms created to feed the anticipated hordes and as can be imagined, plenty of land changing hands at ever increasing prices until Ford pulled out, fed up with the red tape and bickering between the State and Federal Governments.
The idea was simple: recreate Detroit down south with a new moral code. It didn’t come to fruition, however Ford had a cunning plan. He needed rubber for tyres for his vehicles and Brazil was desperate for investment, so two years after pulling out of the South, he had signed a deal much further away in the Amazon region.
This time he was going to build a huge city to tap rubber and process it ready for supply to Detroit. Again under the guise of giving workers a step up (and also lining his own pockets) he cut a deal with the Brazilian Government to buy 5,000 square miles of the Amazon basin for $125,000. Some reports suggest that he was duped by his own people who picked up the land for far less!
Fordlandia was founded on high land which meant logistical problems straight away (there were no roads yet from the main river). The city was designed to segregate the American citizens from the locals and everything had to be designed and built with much of the equipment being shipped in from the US. The locals weren’t happy with the conditions that they had to live in and construction was slow. Ford figured he could sell local wood until the rubber started flowing, however that failed due to the quality of the product and the city saw several riots until a strong manager was appointed.
This was certainly not the vision that Ford had wanted for his new world. It was a painful birth and adolescence for the new community (not necessarily unexpected – many new communities go through this evolution). The biggest issue to face the Ford company was that the rubber trees that were being planted were affected by blight and other diseases such that the end product was far inferior to the rubber produced in the Far East. This was the main rationale for the project – get a high quality supply to Detroit so that Ford could stop paying high prices to the existing rubber companies.
By the late 1940s, Henry Ford II was in charge and in an effort to cut costs, sold the whole area back to the Brazilian Government. All the gringos left leaving a tiny population living in a time warp.
Twice Ford had tried to create a new way of life for people with guaranteed jobs and good living conditions and twice he failed. Detroit, meanwhile, was also heading for a slow decline as manufacturing couldn’t keep pace with what the market wanted and other cities took their glory.
So as Detroit reached the bottom of it’s decline, Fordlandia’s population started to grow as people moved back to re-energize the city and Muscle Shoals was taking a bigger swipe at Detroit’s Motown by retaining its place as a major recording centre for music!
Strangely in the 1960s, Walt Disney had a go at a similar new world community in Florida called EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) – that failed soon after his death due to no one with vision to complete his work. The Reedy Creek Improvement District was established but that never really worked as envisaged.
It is interesting to think how the world would have changed if Muscle Shoals, Fordlandia or even EPCOT had really worked out as planned. Perhaps the local economies would have been stronger and therefore civil unrest reduced. Would we have seen a greater decline in the Amazon rain forest – or would it have helped protect it by managing the plantations better, or worse, would it have declined into a mess like the oil industry in parts of Africa? No one will ever know.