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Dearborn in the Jungle: Why Belterra Flourished Where Fordlandia Failed

September 3, 2015

School Building, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1933. THF115500

Much has already been written about Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazonian experiment, Fordlandia. In 1927, Ford acquired land in Northern Brazil, and envisioned creating a booming rubber plantation and town. He anticipated a new revenue stream that would produce enough rubber to make tires for 2 million tires every year. Ford knew that in order to ensure Fordlandia’s economic success, he needed a workforce that was healthy and contented with their lives.In addition to the rubber plantation, Fordlandia had a school, workers’ homes, a railroad, hospital, dance hall, golf course, community pool, sawmill, recreation center, and many other things Henry Ford viewed as cornerstones of a productive and morally righteous society. As author Greg Grandin wrote in Fordlandia, this new plantation offered Henry Ford, “a chance to join not just factory and field but industry and community in a union that would yield, in addition to great efficiency, fully realized men.” Henry Ford initially offered Brazilian workers 35 cents a day, as well as food, lodging and healthcare, well beyond the wages any laborers had been offered up until now in this part of the world. However, these amenities came with massive strings attached, such as the imposition of an American 9 am - 5 pm working schedule, and the requirement that all laborers eat food from the American Midwest. These habits were foreign to the workers and they quickly grew resentful of the behavioral restrictions imposed by Ford and rioted in December 1930. After the riot, Fordlandia was never able to fully recover, and it was clear that this experiment was not functioning effectively, efficiently or, and most important, profitably. However, Henry Ford was anything but a quitter. He had committed himself to the idea of a rubber plantation deep in the heart of the Amazon, and he was not going to give up on his dream that easy.

Henry Ford – stubborn and proud and innovative – decided to try again. A new location for a second plantation was selected in 1931, land farther downstream from Fordlandia on the Tapajos River. This new plantation was named Belterra, and from the start it fared much better than Fordlandia ever had – in large part because Ford greatly relaxed his policies of social control that had failed in Fordlandia. He allowed some traditional Brazilian customs to be incorporated into Belterra daily life, such as traditional local eating habits and musical instruments. The second time around, however, Henry Ford wanted to expand his vision for a “Dearborn in the Jungle.” He was willing to loosen up on many things, but one area where he would not budge was the type of educational structure he envisioned at Belterra.

School children playing at Belterra, Brazil, 1939. THF98631

Ford’s interest in education was being manifest in America through the creation of his Edison Institute and Greenfield Village, both of which exemplified his educational philosophy of learning by doing. They also attempted to mold students into moral citizenry, most especially through the use of the McGuffey Eclectic Readers in the classrooms. Ford hoped to offer the same non-traditional educational opportunities to the children of Belterra, but took a different approach to encouraging ‘wholesome living’ among his students there.

Ford insisted on Belterra’s schools opening with a full ceremony to raise the American flag. Ford also instituted a mandatory dress code that required boys to wear shorts, shirts and caps, and girls to wear white blouses and dark skirts, and provided students similar provisions to what American students would receive – free uniforms, pencils, and books.

Henry Ford also instituted ballroom dancing and flower gardening classes, vocational training for boys and home economics for female students. It is speculated that Ford, himself an avid gardener, saw gardening as a path toward self-sufficiency, “in which aesthetics and economics, nature and mechanics worked as one.” Brazilian and American pupils socialized freely within the school, and shared cultural norms and behaviors. All these were not-so-subtle attempts to “Americanize” Belterra’s Portuguese youth community. Indeed, as one of Ford’s closest advisors at the time remarked, the whole project of Belterra was “still in an experimental stage – that his experiment is as much sociological as industrial. Indeed, it is in the sociological field that he has thus far registered his finest achievements in Brazil.”

In many ways Belterra was closer to the ideal of a Midwestern American small-town recreated in the Amazon than Fordlandia ever was. Belterra’s terrain was significantly flatter than Fordlandia’s has been, and allowed for a much more traditional suburban feel. A strong plumbing and sanitation system was installed at Belterra, and created sanitary conditions much better than what was to be found anywhere else in rural Brazil at this time.

Additionally, Belterra had straighter streets, complete with parks, streetlights, and fire hydrants. Most importantly to Ford, however, was that Belterra had “a series of small Main Street shops, each one specializing in providing a specific item or service, such as shoes and haircuts.” These things, along with a bakery, barber shop, butcher, tailor, two grocery stores and a meat market, all helped mold Belterra in the image of small-town America that Ford had created for his workers in Dearborn, Michigan.

Workers’ homes built very similar to American Midwestern bungalows of the time.

Belterra had three major schools, each named after one of Henry Ford’s grandsons: Edsel, Henry II, and Benson. In addition, two smaller schools were built later on to accommodate a growing youth population as the plantation intentionally began recruiting more families and less single working men, in the hopes of lowering worker turnover rates.

All together, the Belterra school system, presided over by Principal Mrs. Braga, educated slightly over 1,000 students at its height.

Interior of classroom, Benson Ford School, Belterra, Brazil.

The crown jewel of Belterra’s educational infrastructure was the Benson Ford School, which accommodated over 250 students in its wide corridors and spacious rooms. Benson Ford School was opened on July 4, 1941 – again with a complete American flag raising ceremony – and thereafter used primarily during the rainy seasons. Students reported greatly enjoying their time at the Belterra schools, and many American children learned fluent Portuguese from their fellow pupils.

School at Belterra Rubber Plantation, Brazil, 1939.
THF98633

Although the commercial aspects of the rubber plantations failed, many other aspects of Henry Ford’s ‘experiment’ were quite successful, most especially the Belterra school system. Unfortunately, Ford eventually came to see the entire project at Fordlandia and Belterra as too unsustainable to continue, especially as resources in America tightened 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.

However, the legacy of Belterra and Fordlandia live on, and adventurous travelers can still hike and paddle their way to the abandoned towns to explore the ruins on their own. What is found there is a haunting reminder of the life that once occupied these buildings, and is especially poignant when visiting Belterra’s hallowed school buildings, whether it be an empty wooden desk or a long abandoned swing set, slowly decaying under the intense Amazonian sun.

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

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