Ramblings & ephemera

More on Fordlandia

From Mary A. Dempsey’s “Fordlandia” (Michigan History: July/August 1994):

Screens were just one of the Yankee customs transported to Fordlandia and Belterra. Detroit physician L. S. Fallis, Sr., the first doctor sent from Henry Ford Hospital to run the Fordlandia medical center, attempted to eradicate malaria and hookworm among Brazilian seringueiros (rubber gatherers) by distributing quinine and shoes. The quinine was accepted but shoes were an unwelcome novelty. It is an exceptional photo that shows the shirtless seringueiros, machetes in hand, shod only with floppy rubber-soled sandals; their children went shoeless. The jungle dwellers also found Fordlandia’s two-family homes hopelessly hot and ugly and the idea of bathrooms repulsive. Even today, plumbing is a rarity in the jungle.

At the same time, Ford’s 6:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. work schedule was unpopular with plantation employees accustomed to slashing trees several hours before dawn, then resuming the work at sunset for piecemeal pay. But the promise of free housing and food, top-notch health care for the workers and their families, and a salary of thirty-seven cents a day—double the regular wage—kept the seringueiros on the job. …

Generally, the company-imposed routine met hit-and-miss compliance. Children wore uniforms to school and workers responded favorably to suggestions they grow their own vegetables. But most ignored Ford’s no liquor rule and, on paydays, boats filled with potent cachaca—the local sugar-can brew—pulled up at the dock. Poetry readings, weekend dances and English sing-alongs were among the disputed cultural activities. …

Former Kalamazoo sheriff Curtis Pringle, a manager at Belterra, boosted labor relations when he eased off the Dearborn-style routine and deferred to local customs, especially when it came to meals and entertainment. Under Pringle, Belterra buildings did not contain the glass that made the powerhouse at Fordlandia unbearably hot, and weekend square dancing was optional. Alexander said Henry Ford balked at building a Catholic church at Fordlandia—even though Catholicism was the predominant Christian religion in Brazil. The Catholic chapel was erected right away at Belterra. …

Alexander said of the long-closed but impeccably maintained facility that once boasted separate wards for men and women, thirty nurses, a dentist, three physicians and a pharmacist, who also administered anesthesia during surgery.

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