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Belterra: A Midwest Suburban School System in the Amazon Jungle

September 4, 2015

Fordlandia Houses on Riverside Avenue, Boa Vista, Brazil, 1933. THF109235

Benson Ford School washroom showing advanced sanitary conditions, Belterra, Brazil, 1942. THF240223

Henry Ford established the plantations of Fordlandia and Belterra in Brazil with the hope of mass producing rubber for Ford Motor Company vehicles at a fraction of the cost of American factories. Although deep in the Amazon jungle, Ford was essentially attempting to recreate his successful company town of Dearborn, Michigan for his Brazilian workers. Fordlandia came first in 1930, but was not nearly as prosperous as Ford had hoped. In 1940, Ford opened a second plantation, Belterra. Although both plantations were eventually closed, Belterra found some moderate success before Henry Ford abandoned the project. Belterra set out to solve problems created or brought harshly to light by Fordlandia. In many ways, Belterra more closely aligned with Ford’s vision, epitomizing the ideal small Midwestern town better than Fordlandia ever had.

Belterra’s flat terrain allowed for a traditional suburban feel, including strong plumbing and sanitation systems more advanced than could be found anywhere else in rural Brazil at this time. Additionally, the plantation’s flat landscape enabled straighter streets than were possible to create at Fordlandia.

Patrons visit made-to-order shoe store in Belterra, Brazil, 1938. THF58178

The streets were organized into traditional blocks of homes and streets complete with parks, streetlights, and fire hydrants. What was most important to Henry Ford was that Belterra had a section dedicated to commerce, organized into small Main Street shops. With the establishment of a bakery, barber shop, butcher, tailor, two grocery stores and a meat market, Belterra was well on its way to realizing Henry Ford’s vision of a “Dearborn in the Jungle.”

Education played an integral role in ensuring Belterra’s economic and social successes during its short-lived existence.  In the Dearborn, the Edison Institute and Greenfield Village (now the Henry Ford) both exemplified Ford’s educational philosophy of learning by doing in order to mold students into self-sustaining and moral citizens. Ford hoped to offer the same educational opportunities to the children of Belterra, but needed to take a slightly different approach to encouraging ‘wholesome living’ among his students there.

Mrs. Braga at dedication ceremony, July 4, 1942, Belterra, Brazil. THF240219

Belterra had three major schools, each named after one of Henry Ford’s grandsons: Edsel, Henry II, and Benson Ford. Two smaller schools were later built to accommodate a growing youth population, as the plantation began recruiting more families and less single men, hoping to lower the plantation’s worker turnover rates.  All together, the Belterra school system, presided over by Principal Mrs. Braga, educated slightly over 1,000 students at its height in the early 1940s.

Flag raising ceremony at Benson Ford School, Belterra, Brazil, July 4, 1942. THF240217

Henry Ford insisted that Belterra’s schools open with a full ceremony to raise the American flag alongside the Brazilian flag. Symbolically, the flag raising happened on July 4, 1942. Some felt that this was an attempt to “Americanize” the Brazilian youth community and were unhappy with the practice.

Schoolchildren at Benson Ford School in Belterra, Brazil, 1940. THF56937

Ford also instituted a mandatory dress code, requiring boys to wear shorts, shirts and caps, and girls to wear white blouses and dark skirts. The uniforms, as well as pencils and books, were provided free of charge. Ballroom dancing and flower gardening classes were implemented for all students, as well as vocational training for boys and home economics for girls.

It is speculated that Ford, himself an avid gardener, saw gardening as a path toward self-sufficiency for Belterra’s younger members. Unlike the strict regulations imposed at Fordlandia, Brazilian and American pupils socialized freely in Belterra, sharing cultural norms and behaviors. In fact, many of the American students grew quite close to the Brazilian children, and even learned Portuguese from their Brazilian friends.

Many elements of the suburban ‘experiment’ at Belterra was arguably very successful, especially the school system. Ford’s men did create the small Midwestern town in the middle of the Amazon jungle that he had long envisioned. Henry Ford’s education system, modeled after his work in Dearborn, and the creation of civic infrastructure at Belterra intended to provide a better life for the plantation workers and their families. Unfortunately, these civic improvements did not increase the economic output of the plantations as Ford had hoped and expected. Ford eventually decided that both Fordlandia and Belterra were too unsustainable to continue, especially since resources in America tightened at this time due to the war effort. Ford closed both Belterra and Fordlandia permanently in 1945, selling the land to the Brazilian government for a fraction of its acquisition cost.

Molly Malcolm is a Digital Imaging Archivist at The Henry Ford.

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