Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sam Johnson and the carnauba palm

“Steve, how far is it to Fordlândia?” asked Sam Johnson, President of Johnson Wax Company on his November 1998 visit to Santarém. My whimsical response of “fifteen hours by riverboat” was not exactly what the industrial billionaire wanted to hear. He inquisitively looked over to the next table at the Amazon Park Hotel restaurant to ask one of his eleven escort pilots the same question. A rapid response, calculated in aeronautical jargon, was yelled back to Sam—and he flew off to Fordlândia early the next morning. The lack of a runway there was no obstacle because Sam was flying a replica of the 1928 Sikorsky S-38 amphibian, a plane that his father, Herbert Johnson, had flown in an adventurous 15,000-mile flight from Racine, Wisconsin, to Brazil in 1935. Sam built the S-38 reproduction to blueprint specifications, since his mission was that of replicating the flight completed by the Johnson patriarch some 63 years earlier. Fordlândia was included in the original itinerary of Herbert Johnson because he was researching plantation operations which might be applied to the planting of carnauba palms (Copernecia cerifera), the fronds of which produce the carnauba wax. This hard wax was influential in improving the high-gloss quality of Johnson Wax Company products long before Herbert flew off to Brazil. The palm is better adapted to the dry regions of northeastern Brazil, so it is understandable that the Amazon was never selected as a plantation site. Major plantation efforts on the part of Johnson, none of which reached the level of Ford Motor Company investments in Fordlândia and Belterra, were concentrated in Ceará, where the company continues to produce a carnauba wax to add to its synthetics. Sam Johnson, accompanied by his sons, Curt and Fisk, described his visit to Fordlândia as one of the highlights of their expedition to Brazil. I had the pleasure of hosting them at Bosque Santa Lúcia during their visit. Above excerpt taken from my book, Santarém - Riverboat Town, to be published by the Missouri Publishing Company in 2007. The attached image was taken at the Bosque late this afternoon. Obviously it is a young carnauba palm!

No comments: