From Images of America, Richmond Hill, by Buddy Sullivan
For centuries, the Guale people inhabited the shores of the great Ogeechee River, enjoying the plentiful seafood and temperate climate, but the Spanish exploration of the late 1500’s was the beginning of massive change. By 1792, the English had established themselves and Bryan County was born.
In the early to mid 1800’s, Bryan County’s propsperous rice plantations were the “breadbasket” of the South. The winds of war, though, would shift this prosperity into poverty almost overnight.
Heavily dependent of slaves to work the rice fields, the plantations were at risk yet insulated from most of the effects of war by the ever-resilient walls of Fort McAllister. This earthwork fortification had been invincible through seven attacks by Union forces, including assaults by their ironclads.
In 1864, the full wrath of war finally arrived on Bryan County’s doorstep at dusk on December 13th. General Sherman knew the key to Savannah was taking Fort McAllister, so he swerved 4,500 of his troops south of the grand old city and ravaged all but a few of Bryan County’s plantations.
As Sherman watched from the roof of a rice mill across the Ogeechee River, the once invincible Fort McAllister fell quickly with few casualties to either side. The general’s devastating March to the Sea ended when he entered Savannah without protest on Christmas Eve through her now unlocked back door.
Although Sherman left Savannah virtually untouched, the overwhelming ravages he inflicted on Bryan County destroyed her economic livelihood and resident’s way of life
The desperate years of 1865 through 1925 found malaria and moonshine dominating people’s lives and livelihoods. The swamps became breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease-contaminated water. Nearly eighty percent of Bryan County’s residents lived at the poverty level.
The inability to get cotton and rice to market meant plantation fields must lay fallow. As their world crumbled about them, the resident’s pride, grace, and valor were all that remained. What was needed was an economic shot in the arm, which came when Henry Ford and his wife Clara visited Ways Station in 1925 looking for a winter retreat. A new era was about to begin.
Henry and Clara built their winter estate on the site of a former rice plantation, Richmond, with a commanding view of the great Ogeechee River, and set about erasing the impoverishment of Ways Station over the next 22 years.
While his estate was being built, Ford constructed a saw mill, drained the swamps, and subsidized health care. He started the first kindergarten in Bryan County and began building schools that helped set the standard in education throughout Georgia. Eventually, Ford bought 85,000 acres, including Fort McAllister, saving the old fort from demise. (After his death, International Paper acquired Ford’s holdings and donated Ft. McAllister to the state). He built a church, commissary, trade school, community house, and homes for his 600 employees.
Collaborating with his friends, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, they formed the Edison Botanic Society and conducted laboratory experiments. Ford Farms transformed former rice fields into fields that produced fine iceberg lettuce and grew 365 varieties of soybeans to test their properties for extracting rubber. All of this inspired many local youth to seek higher education and better-paying jobs.
In 1941, Ford and the local citizenry renamed Ways Station to Richmond Hill, but six short years later Henry died, shortly after a visit to his beloved Richmond Hill.
The Ford legacy was to give this small village a 20th century rebirth through a grand philanthropic effort. Today, the Richmond Hill History Museum, housed in the old Ford kindergarten, honors the past, and the future lies in the hands of residents dedicated to new growth.
Bryan County’s multi-layered story reflects its citizens’ pride, grace, and valor, just like that other namesake during our country’s struggle for independence—the Honorable Jonathan Bryan, founding father and patriot from Georgia.
For more information on the history of Richmond Hill, visit:
Richmond Hill History Museum, 11460 Ford Avenue, Richmond Hill, Georgia. (912) 756-3697 (Open Tues. – Sat. 10:00 – 4:00) or by appointment. Groups welcome
Fort McAllister State Historic Park, 3894 Fort McAllister Rd., Richmond Hill, GA (912) 727-2339 (Open Daily 8:00 – 5:00). Groups tours are available by appointment.