Sunday, August 16, 2009

The company town

Having read Douglas Brinkley's centennial history of The Ford Motor Company, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, as well as several earlier books on Henry Ford and his company, it was great to find a new book that covers a chapter in the story that came as a complete surprise. Greg Grandin's Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books) is the fascinating story of an ill-fated business venture that Henry Ford undertook in the 1920s.

Ever the vertical integrator and never one to brook a monopoly (if it might cost him money), Ford created Fordlandia in an attempt to bypass European control of the rubber market and secure a low-cost source of crude rubber. First, he bought a 2.5 million acre tract of jungle (about twice the size of Delaware) located 600 miles deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Then, he decreed that a rubber plantation and a Midwestern-style town be constructed on the site, which was, Grandin reports, "18 hours on a slow riverboat" from the nearest city. You can guess the hilarity that ensued by the fact that the company simply abandoned the venture two decades later.

The most head-shaking part of the story is the supreme confidence and cultural arrogance that was common among the business moguls and large companies of the early 20th century. Fordlandia was not Henry Ford's first attempt at building communities around his businesses; he founded towns in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and in 1922, tried to convince the U.S. government to give him Muscle Shoals, Alabama so he could build the "Detroit of the South." Milton Hershey, who built the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania around his chocolate factory, built a sugar mill town in Cuba. And Grandin reports that in the 1920s:

" could tour Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Cuba, and Columbia and not for moment leave United Fruit Company property, traveling on its trains and ships, passing through its ports, staying in its many towns, with their tree-lined streets and modern amenities, in a company hotel or guest house, playing golf on its links, taking in a Hollywood movie in one of its theaters, and being tended to in its hospital if sick."
These men did not simply see their companies as an integral part of society; for better - and often, as Fordlandia reveals, for worse - they saw themselves as society builders.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Speaking of pirates

The movie studios complain bitterly about piracy, but it's hard to sympathize with them when you read a story like this one from Bloomberg:

J.R.R. Tolkien sold movie rights to his “Lord of the Rings” novels 40 years ago for 7.5 percent of future receipts. Three films and $6 billion later, his heirs say they haven’t seen a dime from Time Warner the rest here
Tolkien's heirs are suing Time Warner for $220 million and I hope they get it all plus double or treble damages. But I'll give Harlan Ellison, one of the great sci-fi writers who worked in Hollywood for many years, the last word on this kind of piracy. Ellison is the subject of an entertaining documentary titled Dreams with Sharp Teeth that every writer should see. In it, he tells this story, which lo and behold was posted on You Tube.