The Colonial Era

In 1733, General James Oglethorpe established the Colony of Georgia, named for King George II of England, and laid out its first city, Savannah. It wasn’t long before the earliest English colonists began branching outward to the surrounding regions. One of the earliest grants made by Oglethorpe was in 1734, for 2,000 acres on the Ogeechee River at Sterling Bluff where present-day Ford Plantation sits. The grant was made to Hugh and William Sterling. The Sterlings ultimately abandoned the grant, and the land passed to John Harn, who named it Dublin Plantation and began cultivating rice as part of an agricultural enterprise. In 1747, Harn planted the now massive Live Oaks that form the letter “H” at the entrance to The Main House.

Dublin Plantation was later renamed Richmond Plantation. It, along with neighboring plantations Silk Hope and Cherry Hill, was used primarily for growing rice up until the American Civil War. Today, The Ford Plantation encompasses much of what was once the Silk Hope, Cherry Hill, and Richmond Plantations.

The Civil War

After the American Revolution, many area plantations expanded cultivation beyond rice to include cotton, and other crops. Thanks to a booming agricultural economy, the plantations were prosperous right up to the Civil War. However, during General Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea, Richmond Plantation was burned.

The Roaring Twenties

In the early 1920s, Henry Ford, famed industrialist and auto magnate, began looking for a place to build a new winter home. Ford felt crowded by the rapidly growing population in and around Fort Myers, Florida, where his winter home was located at the time. His neighbor, famed naturalist John Burroughs, recommended the coastal area of southeast Georgia called Ways Station

Ford purchased massive amounts of land in the area, eventually accumulating 85,000 acres covering 120 square miles. In 1936, Ford broke ground for a beautiful, approximately 7,000-sq-ft Greek revival style mansion on the banks of the Ogeechee River on the former site of Richmond Plantation The grand house, made of Savannah-gray brick, had sat on 55 acres of manicured lawns and flowering gardens. The Fords named their home and land holdings Richmond Hill Plantation, adding “Hill” to the original antebellum plantation name.

Ford established a personal laboratory near his home in a building located on the site of the old Richmond Plantation Rice Mill, which had been partially burned during the Civil War. One of the property’s more curious oddities is an underground tunnel stretching more than 1,100 feet. The tunnel connected his home to the laboratory, and it was built to house the pipes that carried the utilities—such as electricity, heat and water—to the main house. It was in this laboratory that Ford is reported to have conducted experiments inspired by conversations with Thomas Edison and Harvey S. Firestone. The “tinkering lab” was home to parts of old cars, a small steam engine, and a jeweler’s desk (Ford was a once a watchmaker).

The Other Town that Ford Built

Today, The Ford Plantation sits in the middle of Richmond Hill, Georgia, a city of about 12,000 residents located just outside of Savannah. Richmond Hillowes much to Henry Ford.

When Ford first came to Ways Station, it was one of the poorest towns in Georgia. After deciding to establish his winter residence here, Ford was determined to give the townspeople better opportunities for education and employment, as well as improved public services and affordable housing. Ways Station became the site of Ford’s “philanthropic social experiment,” He began agricultural operations; provided housing and medical facilities; and built churches, a community center, and schools for blacks and whites. He developed a sawmill, vocational trade school, improved roads, and other infrastructure and generally brought Ways Station into the 20th century.

As a result, it was suggested that the town be renamed after Ford, an honor which he declined. Instead, the town was renamed Richmond Hill at Ford’s request in 1941.

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