Deep in Brazil’s Amazon, Exploring the Ruins of Ford’s Fantasyland

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Deep in Brazil’s Amazon, Exploring the Ruins of Ford’s Fantasyland
© Brian Denton

The Amazon jungle already swallowed the Winding Brook Golf Course. Floods ravaged the cemetery, leaving behind a stockpile of concrete crosses. The 100-bed hospital designed by the acclaimed Detroit architect Albert Kahn? Plunderers destroyed it.

Given the scale of decay and decrepitude in this town — founded in 1928 by the industrialist Henry Ford in the far reaches of the Amazon River Basin — I didn’t expect to come across the stately, largely well-preserved homes on Palm Avenue. But there they were, thanks to the squatters.

“This street was a looters’ paradise, with thieves taking furniture, doorknobs, anything the Americans left behind,” said Expedito Duarte de Brito, 71, a retired milkman who dwells in one of the homes built for Ford managers in what was planned to be a utopian plantation town. “I thought, ‘Either I occupy this piece of history or it joins the other ruins of Fordlândia.’”

In more than a decade of reporting from Latin America, I made dozens of trips to the Amazon, lured back time and again by its vast rivers, magnificent skies, boomtowns, lost civilizations and tales of hubris consumed by nature. But somehow I never got to Fordlândia.

That finally changed when I boarded a riverboat this year in Santarém, an outpost at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajós rivers, and made the six-hour trip to the place where Ford, one of the world’s richest men, tried turning a colossal swath of Brazilian jungle into a Midwest fantasyland.

I explored the outpost on foot, wandering the ruins and talking to gold prospectors, farmers and descendants of plantation workers who live here. Hardly a lost city, Fordlândia is home to about 2,000 people, some who live in the crumbling structures built nearly a century ago.

Ford, the automobile manufacturer who is considered a founder of American industrial mass-production methods, hatched his plan for Fordlândia in a bid to produce his own source of the rubber needed for making tires and car parts like valves, hoses and gaskets. […]