Your Hometown: Richmond Hill - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

11/10/05

Your Hometown: Richmond Hill

Ford's community center. Ford's community center.
A sense of belonging, ties that bind, precious memories...sentiments often associated with your hometown. Each Thursday for the next few weeks, we will shine our light exclusively on one hometown.

One of the fastest-growing communities in the Coastal Empire has arguably one of the most fascinating stories to tell. When you talk about the history of Richmond Hill, you could justifiably start with Strathy Hall, Hardwicke and many other plantations and locations of note long ago.

But nothing it seems impacted Richmond Hill like the influence of a legendary businessman who arrived in--for an ever-growing number--"your hometown" 80 years ago.

From the tiny railroad depot just south of Savannah came the name "Ways Station," pretty much like lots of other small south Georgia towns. Till 1925, when an icon of American industry came calling.

"That was Henry Ford," said resident Shirley Vining. "We called him our rich uncle."

Shirley knows the story pretty well. "My family has been here since 1922."

Ford built his winter mansion and set up research facilities and farms. He also spent his time and money transforming the community, draining swamps to stop malaria, and building schools, churches and houses for his employees and others, including Shirley's grandmother.

"She got one of the first ones and that's the home that I live in today," Shirley said. "Mr. And Mrs. Ford were wonderful people. They'd come around and visit with the neighbors, and if they could give you a helping hand, they would."

When Shirley was a child, she almost got in trouble with the Fords. It started with people Mr. Ford brought down from Michigan. "They kidded with me. I was a small child and they called me 'little Georgia cracker.' Well my daddy taught me to call them 'damn ol' Yankees.'"

And that led to this story. "Mr. and Mrs. Ford had come to visit with my grandmother and my grandmother had gone out into the kitchen to get them some coffee and cake and she came back in and she said Mr. And Mrs. Ford were just dying laughing. And Mrs. Ford said, 'This little granddaughter of yours is really something,' and my grandmother said, 'Oh goodness, what has she done now?' Says, 'Well she crawled up in my lap and looked at me and said, "Are you a damn ol' Yankee?"'"

Surely it wasn't Shirley who prompted the Fords to provide guidance in social graces, along with cooking and sewing for the girls and other skills for the boys. But they did bring them all together, just for fun, in the community center Ford built.

"Mr. Ford had an orchestra upstairs ready for them, and they'd all dance upstairs and he and Mrs. Ford would dance with the boys and the girls," Shirley told us. "We had a wonderful time."

Ford died in 1947, but his legacy lives on in the town some wanted to name for him: Fordville. He wouldn't have it, so they settled on Richmond, for the plantation where he'd built his home. There was already a Richmond elsewhere in Georgia, so they called it Richmond Hill, where the newest of buildings are crafted to look like those Ford built decades ago.

And it just may be that his influence is felt by those who came here long after he was gone. Resident Diane Strickland called it "The influence that Ford had on the community in terms of the teaching, manners and the education that he brought to the community."

"It's a beautiful location," she went on. "Wonderful school system. We fell in love with the church here, and of course the people."

One of whom has mixed emotions about booming growth in Richmond Hill. "I don't like to see it getting as big as it's getting," Shirley Vining said. "But everything has to change, and I guess we have to change with the times, too."

Reported by: Sonny Dixon, sonnyd@wtoc.com

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