Building A Town With Henry Ford
Richmond Hill, Richmond Hill Historical Museum
MRV: The Buzz, Your RV Lifestyle Insider. Written By: Renee Wright.
A Town Built By Henry Ford: Richmond Hill
A Town In Georgia That Was Built By Henry Ford Himself, With A Church, Bakery, Fire Station, Multiple Schools, Houses And More
In 1925, when Henry Ford began purchasing land along the Ogeechee River in an area known as Bryan Neck, about 20 miles south of Savannah, Georgia, he found that the moonshiners were there before him. “There were more than 300 stills on his new property,” Roy Hubbard, curator of the Richmond Hill Historical Museum, tells The Buzz. “Ford was a teetotaler himself, so he hired Rad Davis, the most notorious moonshiner on Bryan Neck, to clear them out.”
The residents of the little village of Ways Station weren’t long without gainful employment, however. Ford embarked on an ambitious program that involved lumbering, agriculture, and numerous building projects that transformed the town.
“Everybody was employed by Henry,” Hubbard says. “He built a non-denominational chapel, a bakery, a commissary, two community houses, a fire station, a sawmill, machine shops, a trade school, two high schools, a kindergarten, and 300 houses for his workers. Plus more stuff I’m probably forgetting.”
Ford’s most impressive construction was a manor house located on a bluff above the Ogeechee River on the former site of an antebellum rice plantation named Richmond, burned by Sherman on his March to the Sea. Henry and his wife Clara built an 7,000 sf manor house complete with air-conditioning, elevator and a chandelier-lit ballroom on the site and named it Richmond Hill.
“Ford moved here to do agricultural research into synthetic rubbers and plastics,” Roy Hubbard says. “Clara just wanted a new winter home.”
The Fords typically wintered in Ft. Myers, Florida, where their
neighbors included Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and naturalist John
Burroughs. “It was Burroughs who got Ford interested in using
agricultural products for industrial purposes,” Hubbard explains. “He
told Henry there was an unusual variety of plant life here on Bryan
Neck. Ford thought he might be able to grow rubber.”
The rubber plantation never panned out, but Ford, ever the innovator,
built a laboratory and experimented with many different plant substances
for use in manufacturing. “He made cloth from the sap of sweetgum and
blackgum trees,” Hubbard says. “He made plastic out of corn cobs.”
Ford offered the job of managing the lab to George Washington Carver and named one of his high schools after the black innovator known as “the peanut man.” Carver turned him down, but, according to Hubbard, the two men collaborated on a project to make something useful out of a fallow field full of goldenrod.
“They figured out how to make rubber out of goldenrod,” he says. “But not very good rubber.”
Ironically, the most successful agricultural product turned out to be iceberg lettuce. Hubbard says old-timers tell him Bryan Neck lettuce had a slightly salty flavor. “One guy recalled that he used to take a head of lettuce and a jar of mayo to work every day for lunch.”
Before the Civil War, Bryan Neck had been one of the richest agricultural areas in the South, heart of the great rice empire. But war and hurricanes ended the rice era, and by the time Ford arrived, there were only about 750 people in the area, many of them first or second generation descendants of slaves, according to Roy Hubbard, living in extreme poverty, without education or work opportunities.
“Henry Ford changed the whole place,” he says. “He built schools; he
gave everyone jobs; he provided free health care, and eradicated malaria
in the whole county. He built homes where his employees lived for free
until the IRS made him charge rent, and then he raised everyone’s salary
to cover the rent. There are people here who still have fond memories
of Henry Ford.”
When Ford discovered that his property included the site of a
Confederate fort that blocked Union ships from the Ogeechee during the
Civil War, he embarked on another project. “He was a bit of a history
buff,” says Danny Brown, who was manager at what is now Ft. McAllister
State Park for 30 years. “He did extensive research on the fort, based
on existing drawings and photos, then restored it and opened it to the
public.” Today, Fort McAllister, with its campground and easy access
from I-95, is the most profitable park in the Georgia state system.
“Lots of people are surprised to find out that Henry Ford once owned property here,” Brown says, “but he left a big footprint.”
Roy Hubbard looks back on the Ford years as a time of growth and opportunity for the community, as well as an era filled with music and dance. “He’d have dances at the Community House, and out on the lawn at the mansion,” he says. “Sometimes he’d bring an orchestra down from Dearborn and join them playing his own Stradivarius violin.”
Ford last visited his Georgia enterprise in 1947 just days before his death. “He stayed with us 22 years,” Hubbard says. When Clara passed away three years later, all the Ford holdings were sold to the precursor of lumbering giant International Paper.
Recently, the community has rediscovered its Ford heritage and Visit Richmond Hill has created a Heritage Driving Tour past many of the surviving Ford landmarks, including Ft. McAllister, the Community House, Martha-Mary Chapel, now St. Anne’s Catholic Church, and the bakery, under renovation for use as a visitor center. The mansion house has been beautifully restored, and is the centerpiece of The Ford Plantation, an upscale gated community. The former kindergarten built by Ford is now the Richmond Hill History Museum, which Roy Hubbard and his wife took over in 2015, installing exhibits that concentrate on the Ford era.
In 1941, the residents of Ways Station wanted to change the name of their town to honor Henry Ford, but the billionaire objected to the use of his name, and suggested Richmond Hill instead. “They asked him why he called it a hill, since the land around here is pretty flat,” Hubbard says. “Henry replied that the whole area is basically a swamp, and if you weren’t standing in water, you must be on a hill.”
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked
as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel
guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.