Tucked into the Green Mountains of southern Vermont, the town of Manchester has it all – the classic New England charm of steepled churches, historic inns, and an old-fashioned country store alongside the bustle of big-name retail outlet shopping and dozens of cafes and restaurants. Skiers head there in the winter to hit the slopes at Bromley and Stratton Mountains, leaf-peepers arrive with the foliage, and many a summer Sunday has been spent taking in the mountain views from the comfort of a B&B front porch. I headed to Manchester on a recent spring day to visit one the largest feathers in its cap – Hildene, the Lincoln family (yes, that Lincoln family) summer home.
Arriving ahead of schedule, we decided to do some wandering in Manchester Center. While it’s true that Manchester lures many shoppers with its outlet stores, there’s also room for plenty of smaller shops and family-owned eateries.
The view is also pretty spectacular.
We were able to take in the spring flowers and sunshine while browsing in a classic souvenirs-meets-candy country store, art gallery, and consignment shop on Main Street.
Then it was on to Hildene. As someone passionate about New England and American history, I was excited to learn that there even was a slice of Lincoln in New England. As we drove past the historical marker and the house came into view, my excitement kicked up a notch.
But let’s back up a little…
In the summer of 1864 First Lady Mary Lincoln visited Manchester with her sons Robert and Tad to trade the summer heat of Washington (and no doubt, the stress of the Civil War) for the cool mountain breezes of southern Vermont. They stayed at the Equinox Hotel (still in operation today), and enjoyed it so much that the family made plans to visit again the following summer — this time with the President. According to the hotel’s history, a special suite was constructed in anticipation of the President’s visit, but it was not to be. He was assassinated the following April.
Still, the beauty and tranquility of Vermont must have stuck with Robert, the Lincoln’s only child to live to adulthood. Some forty years later, he purchased 500 acres in Vermont (412 of which remain today) and began building a “summer home” for his family. Lincoln called it “Hildene” from an old English word meaning hill and valley with stream, and in 1905 the family moved in. The Lincolns spent an enormous amount of time (sometimes up to 8 months a year) at Hildene, and continued to live there until the next-to-last Lincoln descendant died at Hildene in 1975. Thankfully, the local non-profit “Friends of Hildene” raised the money to purchase the estate in 1978 and began the long process of restoring the home and gardens.
Today, guests are greeted by the wonderful Hildene staff at the Oscar V. Johnson Jr. Welcome Center. Inside is a gift shop with small clustered tables artfully displaying gifts in a variety of themes relating to the work done at Hildene — things like nature, history, food, children’s learning, and Vermont-made products. You can also purchased cheese made from Hildene’s very own cows and goats!
Our first stop was to visit Sunbeam, Hildene’s prized Pullman car. In addition to being Secretary of War under Rutherford B. Hayes, Robert Lincoln was later president of the Pullman Company, which manufactured railroad cars. Sunbeam dates back to 1888 and was meticulously restored and brought to Hildene in 2011, where it is considered the finest example of a wooden Pullman car on display. While the car serves as a memento of a period of Lincoln’s life, it also represents a larger, complicated piece of social history. During the Gilded Age, more than 100,000 people across the country slept on Pullman cars like Sunbeam, where they were waited on by over-worked and underpaid African-American “Pullman porters.”
Strolling through Sunbeam is marvelous for anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie where characters from the late 19th and early 20th century travel by train. The gleaming wood, plush seats, window shades, pull-down sleeper compartments, and overall swankiness is like nothing seen today. Equally compelling is the jarring change from splendid to spartan when crossing into the “Employees Only” section of the car.
After leaving Sunbeam we headed up to the 24-room Georgian Revival house. There are many walking trails surrounding Hildene, and responsible picnicking is allowed. I’ll remember that for next time! You’re welcome to walk from site to site, but transportation is provided at regular intervals for those needing (or wanting) assistance.
The sky held some threatening rainclouds, but the early-spring sunshine won out.
Before entering the house, take note of the rectangle of bricks in the lawn in front of the main entrance. They represent the size of the original cabin President Lincoln was born in — an astonishing comparison next to the grand house.
Unfortunately, photography inside the house is not allowed, but a collection of rooms (bedrooms, dining room, kitchen, study, parlor, library, etc.) are preserved with meticulous detail and care featuring the original furnishings and family effects. The museum’s collection includes a prized 1908 Aeolian pipe organ (complete with 242 rolls), and one of only three known existing stovepipe hats belonging to Abraham Lincoln, as well as one of his bibles.
The formal gardens behind the house, designed as a birthday gift by Robert’s daughter for her mother, include many of the original plantings from 1907.
The most celebrated feature of Hildene’s gardens are its peonies, which earned it a spot on our list of the Best Spring Flower Festivals in New England. Thousands bloom each June, so my visit was just a few weeks too early, but yours could be right on time!
The view or the surrounding mountains is gorgeous. You can see how easy it must have been for members of the Lincoln family to sit and look out the window or stroll the gardens in the summer. We soaked it up for as long as possible, stopping to visit Robert’s observatory (he was an astronomy enthusiast) before heading home.
As we left Manchester we made sure to drive past the Equinox — that first spot the Lincoln family visited in 1864. Today it stands as impressive as ever.
This, too, is easy to picture — Mary Lincoln visiting the Equinox with her sons, enjoying the beauty of Vermont, and making plans for the years after Washington and the war. She hoped to return with her whole family, but instead it was Robert who brought the Lincoln family back to Vermont. After more than twenty “summers” at his beloved Hildene he died there in 1926. Who says there’s no Lincoln in New England? You’ll find plenty of it at Hildene.
In addition to tours of Sunbeam, the house, and gardens, Hildene is also home to the Rowland Agricultural Center — a solar-powered barn where they herd animals and make cheese — as well as numerous school and camp programs.Learn more by visiting them online at www.hildene.org.
This post was first published in 2013 and has been updated.