Henry Ford worked tirelessly to prove that cars, aircraft and the middle-class could be mass-produced. But when it was time to relax, the allure of an antebellum rice plantation along Savannah’s Ogeechee River could never be replicated.
Henry Ford, a man who once quipped in a meeting, “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it’s black” arguably became one of the most influential and important—albeit seemingly inflexible—industrialists of the 20th Century. By revolutionizing the assembly-line concept, Ford was able to produce 2,000,000 cars per year by the 1920s—barely more than a decade after the first Model T rolled off the line in October 1908.
Ford’s manufacturing prowess made it possible for a complex product like an automobile to be mass-produced with repeatable quality, in a reduced timeframe, and at lower cost, thereby making the once elusive automobile affordable to more people. And by paying employees a fair and decent wage—more accurately a premium wage for the day—unskilled factory workers could afford to purchase the very products they toiled over. Ford’s advancements in manufacturing techniques altered the trajectory of industrialization and put Detroit on the map as the undisputed epicenter of early automotive mass production.
While aircraft were not yet being mass-produced, man’s obsession with powered flight was being fueled in the early 1900s by groundbreaking accomplishments of humble makers like the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. Eventually, the Great War enveloped the world and drew Henry Ford into the aviation realm as Ford plants joined competitors Cadillac, Buick, Packard, Marmon and Lincoln (not yet owned by Ford Motor Company) to produce the venerable Liberty aircraft engine, a 400-horsepower V-12.
Five years after the armistice in 1918, Henry Ford was among a group of investors in the Stout Airplane Company. Stout Airplane Company was named for its founder William Stout, not because the all-metal airframe construction was a much more robust—stout—evolution of the flimsy wood and fabric bi-planes prevalent during WWI. Soon thereafter with Ford- like precision and pace, the Stout Airplane Company renamed the Ford Airplane Manufacturing Division, developed the Ford Tri-Motor and became for a time the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft. Interestingly enough, the Ford Tri-Motor did not use the powerful inline V-12 piston engine that Ford helped mass produce for the United States government. Instead, engineers opted for the lighter, more compact Curtiss-Wright air-cooled radial engine under the wings and on the nose. Of the 199 Ford Tri-Motors produced between 1925-1933, a number are still airworthy, complete with their first-class wicker seats.
In the late Roaring 20s, with access to safe and reliable air transportation at his beck and call and with the auto business printing cash by the trunkload, Henry Ford discovered and fell in love with Coastal Georgia on a trip south to visit friend Thomas Edison. The attraction was so strong that he subsequently purchased more than 70,000 acres on both sides of the Ogeechee River to create a private retreat from the stress, pressure, and demands of being responsible for more than 31 factories and assembly plants employing more than 500,000 people. If there was ever anyone who needed the solace of a private sanctuary, Henry Ford was that person. His investment included the site of the old Richmond Plantation whose rice mill and main house were burned during General Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea during the waning days the Civil War. Clara and Henry Ford’s 7,000-square-foot Greek Revival style plantation mansion is built on its forbearer’s ashes.
As with any dream home, Ford’s escape included state-of-the-art amenities and technology of the era such as air- conditioning, multiple indoor bathrooms, electricity (courtesy of Henry Ford’s close personal friend Thomas Edison) and an elevator. The elevator provided access to a 1,400-foot-long secret passageway. A steam powerplant at the far end of the tunnel, with its dual Ford gasoline engines for back-up, made the property self-sustaining and provided seclusion for a research laboratory. Ford was a prolific inventor and patent holder who frequently traversed the tunnel to tinker in the lab on all manner of mechanical devices, most automotive in nature.
By the time the United States was drawn into WWII, automakers and washing machine manufacturers alike were pressed into service to create the Arsenal of Democracy. Armed with the validation of how the assembly line positively impacted auto production, Henry Ford believed that huge aircraft could also be mass-produced with the same quality and efficiency as automobiles. Not surprising, his assertions were correct and at the peak of production, a completed B-24 Liberator—a 37,000-pound, four-engine bomber—rolled off the Willow Run assembly line every 55 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While three other companies were concurrently manufacturing the B-24 under license from Consolidated Aircraft, Ford’s B-24 production efficiency accounted for more than half of the 19,256 B-24 variants ever produced despite one interesting twist of fate that resulted in an unusual turn of events.
Production line manufacturing is a linear process—hence the name “production line.” However, the Willow Run B-24 production facility, built on rural land already owned by the Ford family, was so massive that it threatened to encroach into the neighboring county. Henry Ford, the consummate entrepreneur, innovator, and creative problem-solver had no desire to pay property tax in two counties. So at the county line, the Willow Run production line made a right angle turn to remain fully in Washtenaw County, Michigan. To facilitate the kink in the production flow, massive turntables were installed in the factory floor to turn the aircraft 90-degrees in place to continue their march down the assembly line. This maneuver was ceremoniously called the “tax turn.”
Henry Ford, the son of a farmer, was an intelligent, shrewd and powerful businessman who earned the distinction as the world’s first billionaire—a self-made man to the nth degree. In fact, according to Forbes, Ford’s $200B net worth keeps him high on an exclusive leaderboard as one of the 10 wealthiest individuals of the modern period. Ford remained active in the company he founded until 1945 when at age 82, he passed the reins of the Ford Motor Company to his grandson, Henry Ford II, having lost his only son Edsel two years earlier to cancer.
Despite being an industrialist to the core of his being, Ford always retained his penchant for pastoral space. Before Willow Run became a bomber factory and massive airfield, it was a rural setting for Ford’s social engineering experiment that sought to introduce urban boys to the family farm.
While in the Coastal Empire, Ford recharged by devoting his downtime focus to solving local social and economic issues by improving healthcare and education in and around what is today Richmond Hill. He built clinics, and staffed them with doctors and nurses; he enlarged schools and stocked them with teachers, supplies, and equipment; he built churches and created better housing and roads in the community. His role in bolstering a fledgling auto industry and creating the middle class into something synonymous with ingenuity, personal freedom, and the American dream is the stuff of Ken Burns’ documentaries. In 2017 the Ford Motor Company was listed #10 on the Fortune 500 list valued at more than $150B. Granted, the company value today is less than Henry Ford’s personal net worth high-water mark, but nonetheless, the company he founded more than a century ago is as powerful as ever.
Today, Henry and Clara Ford’s prized winter retreat remains the centerpiece of the South’s premier private residential sporting and golf community that bears his surname. Members enjoy the deep-water marina with Intercoastal Waterway access, a 22-stall equestrian center, spa, tennis courts and access to both winged and sporting clays shooting among other niceties for outdoor enthusiasts and naturalists of any ilk.
Members also appreciate the Audubon International-certified golf course recognized by Golfweek as one of the Top 100 Best Residential Golf Courses in the country.
If Henry Ford were alive today to witness what his beloved plantation and surrounding Richmond Hill has evolved into, I suspect he’d say it suits him to a T—perhaps a Model T.