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

The Civil War

After the American Revolution, many area plantations expanded cultivation beyond rice to include cotton, lettuce, 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 and all the original buildings were lost.

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 Winter Park, Florida, where his winter home was located at the time. His good friend and neighbor, famed naturalist John Burroughs, recommended the coastal area of southeast Georgia.

Ford purchased massive amounts of land in the area, eventually accumulating 70,000 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. The grand house, made of Savannah-gray brick, had marble steps, air conditioning, and an elevator. It sat on 55 acres of manicured lawns and flowering gardens.

Ford established a personal laboratory near The Main House in a building located on the site of the old Richmond Plantation Rice Mill, which had been burned during the Civil War. One of the property’s more curious oddities is an underground tunnel stretching more than 1,100 feet. It was built to connect The Main House to the laboratory, and it was in this laboratory that Ford is reported to have conducted experiments inspired by conversations with Thomas Edison and Harvey S. Firestone, his friends, and former Winter Park neighbors. 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, a small Georgia town of about 12,000 residents located just outside of Savannah. Richmond Hill, originally known as Ways Station, owes 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 there, Ford 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,” and he built a number of public buildings including schools, a chapel, hospital, and sawmill.

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, reviving the name of the local antebellum plantation where Ford built his home.

More History

Let us personalize a Discovery Visit just for you.