The Ford Plantation. 1,800 acres. 400 families.
Eighteen miles from the city of Savannah is the town of Richmond Hill, which was named in honor of the historic estate purchased by automobile magnate Henry Ford in the 1930s. The 1,800–acre estate is now The Ford Plantation, a private residential and sporting community on the Ogeechee River, where 400 families will live companionably with the evidence of our heritage: lawn parties and wine tastings at the historic Main House; Low Country oyster roasts at the Oyster House in the woods; antebellum rice fields now teeming with migrating birds and native wildlife; colonnades of live oaks that were already ancient in 1853, when the landscape architect and designer of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead, wrote, “I have hardly in all my life seen anything so impressively grand and beautiful.”
The history of The Ford Plantation mirrors the history of this country. The plantation played important roles in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the industrial revolution. It continues to play a prominent role in American society today as one of our nation’s leading luxury communities and private sporting clubs.
In 1733, General James Oglethorpe established the Colony of Georgia, named for King George II of England, and laid out its first city, Savannah, using a system of streets and squares that define the city’s plan to this day. He barred slavery, rum, and lawyers, seeing all three as contrary to the best interests of the new English settlement.
It was not 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 that would take its place with the many coastal plantations that were being established along the Ogeechee River. In 1747, Harn planted the now massive live oaks that form the letter “H” at the entrance to The Main House.
The Ford Plantation encompasses land that was once home to three plantations: Dublin (later renamed Richmond; established 1747) Silk Hope (est. 1750), Cherry Hill (est. 1770). Dikes and irrigation systems for growing rice were built. Following a break in agricultural activities during the Revolutionary War, the Plantations added upland cotton and other crops to their primary cash crop: tidal rice. Soon, a booming economy allowed the Plantations to expand and rise to prominence for three-quarters of a century.
The onset of the Civil War in 1861 brought economic disaster, when the Union blockaded the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Fort McAllister, built to protect the Confederacy’s “breadbasket,” was destroyed in 1864 when General William Tecumseh Sherman conducted his “March to the Sea.” Plantations caught between the armies fell victim to their campaigns.
Despite the war’s devastation and the resulting loss of slave labor, some plantations were rebuilt, producing both rice and cotton. While freedmen established tenant farms, many landowners sold their property and the area experienced poverty and unemployment.
In the early 1920s, a stranger from Michigan unexpectedly appeared. Industrialist Henry Ford, the world’s first billionaire, purchased massive amounts of land in the area. He eventually accumulated 70,000 acres, covering 120 square miles.
In 1936, Ford broke ground for a beautiful 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. The house became the center of social gatherings with visitations by the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and the DuPonts. It remains the centerpiece of The Ford Plantation today.
Mr. Ford converted the 1870s–era rice mill into his personal research laboratory and powerhouse and constructed an underground tunnel from there to the new home, providing it with steam. Ford called his estate Richmond Hill.
Addressing social and economic problems of the area gave Ford his greatest satisfaction and provided him with an escape from things that distressed him. Ford championed causes to improve health care and education. He brought in doctors and nurses. He built clinics. He enlarged schools and brought in new educational equipment, libraries, movie projectors, radios, athletic equipment, and most of all, teachers. He built community houses and chapels.
Ford’s ever-present birdhouses were tucked in appropriate places. He forbade hunting, and before long, deer and wild hogs began to abound and even wild turkeys became tame and frequented the lawn during the day. Ford suggested the entire town be renamed Richmond Hill and the town’s people eagerly agreed.
After the Fords’ deaths, the land changed ownership several times over the years and eventually became the personal estate of Saudi Arabian businessman Gaith Pharaon in the 1980s. He built a private, world-class golf course, designed by Pete Dye.
In 1998, the Ford estate was purchased by Sterling Bluff Associates, a private investor group, that developed The Ford Plantation. This 1,800–acre estate is now a private residential and sporting community, where 400 families will live companionably with the evidence of our heritage.