Originally created 11/29/97

Historic home faces mauling



RICHMOND HILL, Ga. -- While harvesting lettuce and inventing auto parts in this city near Savannah, Henry Ford hired the locals, built them homes and invited them to live there for free.

Most houses he placed in neighborhood clusters scattered throughout the city. But one he erected in a field away from the others was a double-decker that stood higher than its one-story counterparts.

"The uniqueness is (that) the upstairs is the entrance and that's because the living area was upstairs," said owner David Butler.

Nearly 60 years later, another produce peddler -- Kroger -- is putting that historic Bryan County home in jeopardy. Its mandate: move or be mauled.

To make way for the grocery store, Mr. Butler is considering selling his historic house, backyard barn and three acres along Ga. Highway 144 to the chain.

If he agrees to sell land and property to Kroger, he can keep the house. Only move it.

If he sells the house to someone else, that buyer has to haul it away. If he leaves the house, it may face the wrecking ball.

The coin-toss has caused city leaders to scramble to save the site.

"I'm trying to get someone to donate it to the city so we can make a City Hall out of it," said Mayor Richard Davis. The Richmond Hill Historical Society worked to get the home eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

They joined the city's convention and visitors bureau to grab the building, but property costs and moving expenses hampered their plot.

High-bidder Tish Pawloski of Richmond Hill wants to relocate the house to southern Bryan County and move her family into it.

"I've always wanted an old home," she said. "I love antiques and the hardwood floors and the fact that it's a Henry Ford home."

It also comes shrouded in history -- including reports of Ford's snobbery.

"Henry Ford didn't want anybody to have a two-story house but him," Mr. Butler said. "So the guy that built this house could only finish off one floor and he decided to finish off the second floor so all the living area was upstairs."

Mr. Davis, the mayor, recounted a similar story, saying that Ford wanted only his Ogeechee River mansion to be the largest home.

"I don't know if that's true or not," the mayor said. It may not be, said local historians.

"There is no documentation that Ford ordered it not to be two stories," said museum director Tiffany Strickland. "There's no documentation and I've never (heard it from) first-hand people."

Some historians listed several other two-story homes that Ford built, but challengers argue that an attic does not constitute a second floor. Ford built the home in the early 1940s for Joe Columbus Bell -- Ford's woodsman -- and his wife, Carrie Bell -- the Bryan County Home Demonstration Agent. Their sons operated the industrial arts and trade school and the cabinet shop on Ford's plantation -- where lettuce was grown and shipped along the East Coast and where researchers determined whether crops could be turned into plastics for auto parts.

Ford bought 70,000 acres in coastal Bryan County and 4,000 acres in Chatham County by 1935. He erected his two-story mansion a year later and built about 200 homes for his plantation workers.

"(Ford) built houses for employees and didn't charge any rent and then the IRS told them he had to charge," said F. Leslie Long, who worked as Ford's laboratory technician for 14 years. "He charged everyone $15 a month and then raised their salary $15 a month."

The Ford family sold the plantation and homes to International Paper in the early 1950s after Ford and his wife had died. Mr. Butler bought the house from the paper company in 1980 for $62,400. He moved his family into the home and rearranged rooms to make them "normal" -- bringing the upstairs kitchen, living room and dining room into the previously cavernous first floor, which possibly was intended for a workshop.

He kept the wooden floors but sandblasted brick walls to remove white paint that had been slapped on during the International Paper days.

"It's been a very unique style of living," Mr. Butler said. "It's just been a very unique home and I feel like it's been a little bit of a landmark for Richmond Hill."