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Richmond Hill History

Richmond Hill History

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 1500s was the beginning of massive change. By 1792, the English had established themselves in the area, and Bryan County was born.

In the early-to-mid-1800s, Bryan County’s prosperous rice plantations were the “breadbasket” off the South, but that prosperity changed to poverty virtually overnight as a result of the war. Heavily dependent on 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 Ft. McAllister. This earthwork fortification had been invincible through seven attacks by Union forces, including assaults by their ironclads.

Civil War

At dusk on December 13, 1864, the full wrath of the war hit Bryan County. General Sherman knew the key to Savannah was taking Ft. McAllister, so he moved 4,500 of his troops south of Savannah and destroyed all but a few of Bryan County’s plantations.

Watching from the roof of a rice mill across the Ogeechee River, Sherman witnessed the fall of the once invincible Ft. McAllister. The general’s devastating March to the Sea ended when he entered Savannah without protest on Christmas Eve. Although Sherman left Savannah virtually untouched, Bryan County was not so lucky. The economic livelihood and residents’ way of life were destroyed.

The years of 1865-1925 were times of trouble and desperation with malaria and moonshine dominating people’s lives and livelihoods. Almost 80 percent of the county’s residents lived in poverty. What was needed was an economic shot in the arm, and that shot came when Henry and Clara Ford visited Ways Station in 1925 while looking for a winter retreat.

Sterling Bluff

Henry and Clara built their winter estate on Sterling Bluff, the site of a former plantation with an astounding view of the great Ogeechee River. Over the next 22 years, the Fords set out to erase the poverty-stricken Ways Station.

While his estate was being built, Ford constructed a sawmill, drained the swamps and subsidized healthcare. 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 Ft. McAllister, saving the old fort from demise. (After his death, International Paper acquired Ford’s holdings and donated Ft. McAllister to the state.) Ford 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.

While Richmond Hill enjoyed Ford’s largesse, Pembroke became the center of population due to its prominence as a railroad center and major shipping point for the lumber and turpentine produced in North Bryan County.

Within a couple decades, the railroads and Pembroke would lose much of their importance as automobile and trucking companies provided point-to-point service in the latter half of the 20th century. The U.S. Army struck a simultaneous blow in 1941 by building Ft. Stewart in the center of Bryan County, literally splitting the county in two.

Today, although the heyday of the railroad is gone, Pembroke is the archetypical Southern small town, sustained by a renewed vigor from the economic lifeblood flowing down I-16 and a populace seeking a quieter and friendlier lifestyle.

Bryan County’s multi-layered story reflects its citizens’ pride, grace and valor, just like that of her namesake during our country’s struggle for independence – The Honorable Jonathan Bryan, founding father and patriot from Georgia.

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