TRAILS & TALES AT HILDENE THIS SPRING
All trails begin and end at Hildene’s Welcome Center where guests get a glimpse of all that its mission: Values into Action encompasses. It is here that guests can access a map and information on everything from the Pullman car to the floating boardwalk and how to get there and back . A short video focuses on the history of Hildene past and present and another on the restoration of Pullman car, Sunbeam. The films highlight Hildene’s ongoing commitment to preservation, conservation and education. Upon purchase of admission, all guests receive a sticker giving them access to the 412 acre estate.
Among the many advantages of being in The Shires of Vermont in the spring is the sense that nature is coming to life ever so gradually in the surrounding mountains and the valley below. Hildene, The Lincoln Family Home, the 412 acre Manchester estate of presidential son, Robert Lincoln, is perfectly positioned, for its guests to experience this phenomenon up close. Just outside the 24 room mansion, the view from the formal garden is unforgettable. The Taconic Mountains lie to the west, the Green Mountains to the east and the Battenkill flows through the great valley of Vermont below. This vista explains why Robert and Mary Lincoln called their home Hildene. The name originates from the union of two Olde English words, “hil” meaning hill and “dene,” meaning valley with stream. 12 miles of trails traverse both hill and valley with tales to tell, from presidents to pollinators, making The Lincoln Family Home a special place to be in the spring.
Many visitors, after checking in at the Welcome Center, begin their visit in the garden or at the home, where the story is focused on the family’s life and Robert Lincoln’s sense of civic responsibility. Robert built Hildene, his ancestral home, in 1905 after a successful career as attorney and statesman and while he was president of the Pullman Company, the largest manufacturing company in the world at the time. Guests have the opportunity, while visiting Robert and Mary’s home to view the exhibit, “The American Ideal: Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural” focused on his famous father. One of only three of President Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hats in existence is part of this exhibit. The story told is of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, considered to be the greatest presidential speech and one with a message that resonates today.
Guests who venture into the garden behind the home, will soon understand why American Gardener Magazine says, “One of the most notable features of the grounds is the formal garden, famous for its “Celebration of Peonies” from late May to mid-June, when thousands of flamboyant flower blooms fill the garden with color.” The peonies, most purchased from Paris by the family in 1907, were planted in the European parterre garden designed to resemble a stain glass window more than a century ago. When spring wanes and summer approaches the beauty remains as the perennials slowly take over for the peonies, remaining in bloom into fall.
Having learned about the role Robert Lincoln played in the success of the Pullman Company, guests often make their way to the entrance road in front of the house. In early spring they will find thousands of daffodils along the way to the trail leading to Pullman car, Sunbeam. The meticulously restored 1903 railcar is the southern-most site on Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail. The “Many Voices” exhibit tells the story of the Pullman Company, the wealthy passengers, and the Black porters. The 4th voice is that of the staff and visitors engaging in dialogue about this provocative exhibit. At the turn of the century the Pullman Company was the largest employer of African Americans in the country, offering slaves freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment, jobs as Pullman porters. In spite of the exploitive environment in which they worked, these men were able to better their lives and those of their families, helping to give rise to America’s black middle class. Hildene uses Sunbeam to present a little mentioned slice of American history that is illuminating and challenging in its content, one that raises questions and is intended to stimulate civil discourse.
Departing from Sunbeam guests can follow the farm trail, a forested path, that leads to the goat dairy and cheese-making facility at Hildene Farm. The dairy is part of the Vermont Cheese Trail. Here the family’s agricultural legacy is honored, but the look, feel and mission are 21st century with the focus on sustainable and green practices, small scale farming, and the creation of a farm to table product, Hildene artisanal cheese. The barn is designed specifically to house Hildene’s herd of Nubian goats and for public viewing of cheese-making from milking to processing, pasteurization, aging and packaging. The cheese is available for purchase in The Museum Store.
To view agriculture in a different environment, a visit to the Dene is recommended. The trail to the land below the house winds through a sugarbush to the sixty acre meadow known as Dene Farm. It is here that guests can experience wetlands and wildlife up close with a walk across the 600’ floating boardwalk and into the bobolink sanctuary. They will also discover the 160’ by 30’ teaching greenhouse where local high school students engaged in courses that include: Naturalist Studies, Ecology and Sustainable Agriculture. Dene Farm is evidence of what can happen when a historic site with roots in the past commits to putting new roots, literally and figuratively, in the good earth for the future. The short answer is great things!
Once back at the Welcome Center, if guests want to see yet more gardens. The area behind the restored carriage barn boasts a soft fruit cage, and observation, butterfly and cutting and kitchen gardens. Hildene is a pollinator sanctuary committed to providing and protecting habitat for birds, butterflies and bees.
The Hildene experience ends at the Welcome Center and The Museum Store, filled to the brim with items inspired by Lincoln family history, the estate’s natural environment, gardens, life on the farm, and Vermont products. A student focused section features activity oriented books, games and project kits on diverse topics from bees and bugs to environmental science, recycling, and sustainability. Tastings of Hildene cheese and Vermont products are popular.