By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
A trip to the Manchester area in southern Vermont is not complete without a visit to Hildene. Located on 400 acres in Manchester Village just outside of town, this historic home will appeal to people of different interests and ages. The Lincoln estate — this was home to Abraham Lincoln’s son — has historic artifacts, unique details, beautiful architecture, a magnificent garden, a farm, a great store, and even a completely restored Pullman train car.
You begin your visit at the welcome center where you can watch a short movie about Hildene. The center also houses a great gift shop where you can find books, mementos, and many great made-in-Vermont products.
Just a short walk away is the home, a stunning Georgian Revival mansion. President Abraham Lincoln may have been born in a log cabin, but Robert Todd Lincoln, his eldest son (and the only one to survive to adulthood) ended up in a much different setting. Robert, who became Chairman of the Pullman Company, and his wife Mary had this mansion built in 1905. More than 110 years later, the mansion has been restored beautifully.
History buffs will appreciate the artifacts throughout Hildene: the house is furnished almost entirely with Lincoln family furniture and there is even a room upstairs dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. In this mini-museum of sorts are books and other personal belongings, including one of the president’s iconic stovepipe hats (one of only three that were in existence and, according to our docent, the one in the best condition).
Throughout the home signs explain in detail the significance of each room. In Robert’s bedroom, a note by the safe points out that during renovations volunteers found a bundle of papers in the wall safe marked “MTL Insanity Papers.” The sign states that “For almost a century, Robert’s reasoning for having Mary Todd Lincoln [his mother] committed to an insane asylum was unknown and he was often portrayed as an unkind son. These papers make clear that Robert was motivated solely by the best interests of his mother as he perceived them to be.”
On a happier note is the 1908 Aeolian pipe organ. Once upon a time this would play music automatically from the rolls, and today you can still hear the sounds: the music from those actual rolls has been recorded and digitized so it plays daily for visitors. The 1,000-pipe organ is installed in the entrance hall at Hildene and you can see the cabinets with all the rolls.
The Hildene site notes that this may be the oldest residential pipe organ with a player attachment still in its original location and still in working order in the United States. It’s fascinating to see the many rolls and giant pipes and to imagine how this was “high-tech” once upon a time — especially when you are traveling with a young child carrying a tiny iPad that stores hundreds of songs.
Tours of Hildene are self-guided but there is always a docent present who is more than happy to answer questions or provide tidbits on the home and its people. Our docent was friendly and provided interesting facts but also let us explore the home on our own and our preferred pace. The home itself is warm and inviting. Historic homes — let’s be honest — can sometimes be “stiff,” but this one made you want to sit down and have a cup of tea. Our young son agreed: he said this is the first such home he has toured that he could see himself living in today.
The grounds are equally beautiful. The Hoyt Formal Garden is nice to walk through and when you get to the edge you have very nice views of the valley and the mountains. We visited Hildene in the late spring — what Vermonters call “the mud season” — so we missed out on the peonies that bloom each June and fill the garden with color. Even so, it’s a nice garden and it’s easy to imagine how lovely it looks with flowers in bloom.
Also on the grounds are the carriage barn and a potting shed with antique tools, walking trails, and Hildene Farm. On the farm you can see see some goats and, if you time your visit right, watch cheese be made on site. Be sure to plan time for a short hike out to Sunbeam, the Pullman Car used by Robert Lincoln when he was President of the Pullman Company (this is included in your admission price).
You can walk through the entire car, which is nicely maintained, and imagine what it was like to travel in style at the turn of the 20th century. The 72-foot car was beautifully restored and the details throughout highlight was luxury was in the Gilded Age of post-Civil War wealth and industry in the United States. You can take a peek into the sleeper car and picture the adventurous feeling of long trips by rail before cars and airplanes became the preferred method of travel.
The car is located in a replica train station that houses the exhibit “Many Voices.” The panels tell the story of the Pullman Porters, African Americans who worked on the railcars. Their contributions to — and struggles with — the company are significant, as Pullman was the largest employer of African Americans, many of whom were freed slaves and their families. Their work with the company, though not always easy, helped to establish the black middle class in the United States.
While you can tour Hildene itself in less than an hour, plan to spend at least a couple of hours at the estate to make the most of your visit, including a visit to Sunbeam and the farm. The estate is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. If you visit in winter, you can enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — Hildene will rent you the equipment!
Disclosure: We received complimentary passes to Hildene courtesy of the Wilburton Inn. This article is my original writing and the opinions expressed herein are my own.