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Henry and Clara Ford's impact here was one of a kind
Martha-Mary chapel
Richmond Hill Zoning Administrator Amanda Styer and Richmond Hill CVB Director Christy Sherman in front of the Martha-Mary Chapel. Photo by Jeff Whitten.

There are older stories here along Bryan County’s marshes and creeks and river, to be sure.

The Guale Indians were in this part of the world as recently as the 1600s, and the Spanish and English and Africans followed. There were rice plantations and slavery, and a bloody war that ultimately spelled the end of both.

But those stories, and many that followed, are not unique to Bryan County.

This one is.

It started in 1925, when Henry Ford came to what is now Richmond Hill and began a social experiment, the remainders of which exist here today, in plain sight, in what is now called The Ford Avenue Historic District.

“The story of the Ford Avenue Historic District is unique in the sense that it encompasses the tangible history of Henry and Clara Ford’s influence in Richmond Hill,” said Christy Sherman, the director of the Richmond Hill Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many wealthy northerners built winter homes in the South, but few did so much for the people in the area as the Fords did here. Richmond Hill was the largest, most successful, and longest-running social project by the Fords, outside of their work in Michigan.”

That tangible history sits mostly on Ford Avenue, a stretch of Highway 144 that runs through the city’s commercial hub on its way east to ever expanding residential development.

Tens of thousands of cars carrying commuters on their daily trip to work or school and home again pass by buildings built at the behest of Henry Ford.

Ford, one of the giants of American industry, invented the assembly line and mass production of the automobile, and he had something in mind when he bought more about 85,000 acres here at something like $20 an acre, a purchase that included Fort McAllister and a number of plantations in the area.

In a nutshell, Ford wanted to make rubber for tires and he and Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tire fame thought Ways Station – which would become Richmond Hill – was the ideal place to do so.

The experiment didn’t work out because rubber plants didn’t grow so well here, though iceburg lettuce did. But along the way, Ford and his wife Clara built Richmond Hill and took care of the people in it, hiring them for jobs, teaching them life skills and providing for their schooling and religious needs.

It was a very much a company town.

“Richmond Hill was the largest, most successful, and longest-running social project by the Fords, outside of their work in Michigan,” Sherman said. The buildings that exist within the district were used to create a community of well-educated, well-groomed, healthy, and successful people during the Ford Era.”

Ford died in 1947, and the Ford Era ended around 1950, according to Sherman, who along with Richmond Hill Zoning Administrator Amanda Styer and Rebecca Fenwick of Ethos Preservation and a number of others, worked to catalogue and then preserve the places from that time – among them the old Courthouse Annex, now the Richmond Hill Senior center; the Gregory House, built for Jack Gregory, Ford Plantation superintendent during Ford’s time and now home to the city’s planning and zoning department; the Community House, now home to Carter Funeral Home, built in 1936 and once a place with a ballroom and modern kitchen and dormitory for young ladies who learned what amounts to home economics during free weeklong stays at the home. There’s the Martha- Mary Chapel, built in 1937 and named for Henry and Clara’s mothers, Mary and Martha. Now a part of St. Anne’s Catholic Church, the chapel was nondenominational during the Ford Era but students of Richmond Hill Consolidated School, which stood behind the chapel, were required to attend services daily.

It is, historians say, one of only six such chapels Ford built – four are Michigan and one in Massachusetts.

Nearby are the Ford Plantation Commissary and Ford Bakery – the latter now houses Sherman’s office – and the Ford Kindergarten and Ford Barbershop, now home to Richmond Hill Historical Society.

The list goes on. In all, there are such 19 structures included in the district as “contributing buildings,” according to a survey conducted in 2018, as Richmond Hill officials began working on a historic preservation ordinance and creating its Historic Preservation Commission.

Grants from the state helped fund more than half of the approximately $30,000 it took for the project, which included a pair of open houses in 2020 as those involved sought feedback from residents before city officials in January passed an ordinance establishing guidelines for the Ford Avenue Historic District, which is now recognized by the state.

That designation and recognition provides a number of tools for cities and property owners, Styer said, but a city can’t just go out and declare an area is historic.

“A historic district designates a group of buildings, structures, and sites that relate to one another historically and architecturally, and allows for protection of the contributing buildings within it,” Styer said. “The district boundaries need to ‘make sense’ and the findings of our historic resource survey report showed that we have 19 historic buildings along Ford Avenue, located within what was already an architecture overlay district (previously called Ford Avenue Overlay District), so it was clear where the district boundaries should be and the state agreed.”

Sherman sees creation of the Ford Avenue Historic District as a natural part of the city’s effort to remember its past as it continues its growth and expansion.

“Protecting the historic architecture helps maintain our identity and culture,” she said. “Many times new development makes every place look like every other place. We hope the district will help keep our identity intact and preserve the character of Richmond Hill. In addition, old buildings have soul! They are the perfect place for neighborhood restaurants and pubs, retail shops, bookstores, and start-up businesses. Old buildings attract visitors as they are much more interesting. The district should help create a sense of place, attract heritage tourists and improve community pride.”

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