By KEVIN FORREST
The tale of the Billings Farm is an oft-told story around Woodstock. And thanks to some people gifted with long-range vision and the means to protect a legacy, the story will unfold before the eyes of visitors for many years to come.
Long before Caucasian settlers laid eyes on this verdant valley, other settlers recognized the fertile treasures of this scenic plot along the Ottauquechee River.
“When white settlers first came to Woodstock, they found a good area of that field was cleared,” explains David Donath, president of the Woodstock Foundation that oversees the farm operation. “That suggests strongly that it was used agriculturally by Native Americans. We don’t know the details. Maybe someday archeologists will be able to help us with that.”
Charles Marsh was a prominent attorney in Woodstock in the early 1800s. He acquired the farm and developed it into a thriving operation. One of his children, George Perkins Marsh, would be forever affected by his childhood roamings over the fields and nearby Mount Tom. The young Marsh developed a keen sense of appreciation for preserving forestland and agricultural sites that at the time were being ravaged by irresponsible agricultural practices. His childhood experiences and later life observations would culminate in the writing of Man and Nature,” a book described by historians as “the fountainhead” of the U.S. conservation movement.
As George Perkins Marsh traveled the world as a diplomat and attorney in the mid-1800s, his brother Charles was selling off pieces of the farm. One of these was purchased by Frederick Billings, a native Woodstocker who had returned home after making a fortune as a San Francisco attorney during the gold rush.
Billings had read Man and Nature. “He took it to heart,” Donath said. Billings was a “captain of industry” who would later save the Northern Pacific Railroad with a reorganization plan (Billings, Montana bears his name). A man who believed that technology, science and a sense of preservation could be blended, Billings reforested Mount Tom and set about creating the best possible dairy herd, using expensive European trees and cattle.
Not satisfied with creating arguably the best farm in Vermont, Billings also turned his attention to his native Woodstock. He helped start its first railroad, its first gas company and the town’s first centerpiece inn. He brought in the much-acclaimed George Aitken as farm manager. Aitken’s tenure would bring what Donath calls the “heyday” of the farm from the 1880s through 1910 when Aitken died. Shortly after Billings’ death in 1889, cows from his farm took top honors at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Those medals till grace the walls at the Billings Farm.
New Manager Brings Glory Days Back To The Farm
After George Aitkens died, the Billings Farm slipped into some of its least memorable decades. During the Depression, the Windsor County Fair, long located on a plot adjacent to the farm, relocated elsewhere. The Billings Family was able to acquire this key parcel.
But during World War II, the Billings Farm dwindled to “a couple of cows and just a faint shadow of what it had been,” according to Donath. Victory gardens were planted in its fields.
A key development during this time found Frederick Billings’ daughters Mary and Elizabeth pool their remaining resources to revitalize the farm. After the war they built the now-familiar large barns and a creamery and restocked the herd with fine specimens.
“In the early 1950s, Billings Farm is the local dairy in Woodstock,” explained Donath. Later it would merge with Starlake (located on Woodstock’s East End). The bottling facility and later the dairy would move to Wilder.
Soon after Mary French’s death in the 1950s, her daughter Mary and husband Laurance Rockefeller made the famous mansion their summer home. Intrigued by the farm, Laurance bought up the family shares and took it over. At this same time, he began purchasing properties throughout Woodstock, including the Woodstock Inn and Country Club.
Laurance hired Bob Lord, “a very successful, very flamboyant leader in Jersey breeding circles,” according to Donath. “Bob Lord had the job of taking Billings Farm back to its glory days and he did.”
Lord’s crowning achievement was the breeding of the “Roseanne” cow that won top honors for the farm, once again establishing it as a prize breeder of Jersey cows.
At this same time during the 1970s, Rockefeller launched the Vermont Folklife Project. Researchers Scott Hastings and Geraldine Brown began gathering oral histories and other data about Vermont rural farm families. This information would provide a key ingredient in the creation of the Billings Farm and Museum in 1983.
Rockefeller Reveals His Plans to Preserve History
Rockefeller granted the Valley News an extensive interview in the early 1980s. In that, he hinted that he wanted to preserve the treasures of the farm, Mount Tom forest and the mansion and eventually share them with the public. Ensuing years would see this prophesy fulfilled.
Meanwhile, the Billings Farm-with its real-life working dairy operation and stunning museum exhibits-began to earn a reputation as a top Vermont tourist draw and a favorite stop for vesting school groups.
“We grew steadily in attendance throughout the 1980s and 1990s, up to about 55,000 to 60,000 visitors a year,” Donath said. “That leveled off in the late 1990s and has stayed the same,”
But, Donath added, “A lot of museums have been challenged but we have been remarkably stable.”
The farm and museum has also been sustained by up to 900 members. Donath describes them as “mostly families, a very loyal group that visits on average 4.5 times per year. That’s a very active, loyal following.”
In 1989, the directors proudly unveiled a new focal point for the museum-a restored 1890s farmhouse. Even today many of the demonstrations of old-time crafts and skills are imbued with a special sense of realism as they take place in this historic building.
It was after this dedication ceremony that the Rockefellers invited U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcel back to the mansion for lemonade. Here the four talked about the possibility of creating Vermont’s first national park on this site. Since Rockefeller had much experience with establishing national parks in the Grand Tetons and the Virgin Islands, it’s probably an idea that had simmered in his imagination for decades. Nine years later that dream would become a reality.
Things Weren’t Always Easy Down on the Farm
One of the missions of the Billings Farm and Museum is to depict a realistic, non-sugar-coated picture of farm life a century ago. Assistant manager Darlyne Franzen likes to ask departing guests what they now think of farm life.
“It was hard, really hard” to live on a farm back then, most tell her.
“It makes us realize that we are doing something right because they’re not going away with a romanticized vision of â€˜wouldn’t it be nice to live on a farm?'” Franzen explained.
Donath agreed. “Part of the reason Vermont is beautiful is that it’s a rather harsh environment, not the easiest place to make a living from the land.” Farm life in the late 1800s “was a complex way of life that requires lots of skills, lots of hard work and lots of knowledge to make a go of it. And that’s part of the richness of the experience.”
Donath is especially proud of the museum’s moniker, “Gateway To Vermont’s Rural Heritage.” For locals who visit the museum, it offers them a chance to better understand and appreciate the special place where they live.
For the many out-of-state visitors, the Billings Farm and Museum helps them to “get a good sense of why does this land look the way it does and what are the underlying forces and human activities that made this happen,” according to Donath.
“Our hope is that when you come to Billings Farm you get a sense that motivates you to do further exploration and maybe spend more time in Vermont,” he said.
Donath says that the museum’s exhibits, many of them in the form of striking life-size tableaux, are now a quarter century old.
“They’re still very rewarding and in fine shape. But lots of people have seen them and it’s time for us to refresh them, to bring in some other exhibits and add to the story,” he added. To that end, two grants over the past two years totaling $50,000 from the National Endowment on the Arts will start the process of upgrading the exhibits.
History of Excellence Remains Firmly In Place
Franzen said there have been some consistent values that have marked the 25-year stewardship of the Billings Farm and Museum.
“We’re very much motivated by the Billings’ and Rockefellers’ history of excellence-doing things well, treating people well, and having a great sense of hospitality,” she explained. “We’ve always wanted this to be an engaging, welcoming, friendly place to be. We felt people would learn faster, learn more. We also felt people would be inclined to talk about this place to others and to return more themselves.”
This welcoming viewpoint and standard of excellence for all work connected to the museum has served the Billings Farm and Museum well throughout its 25-year history.
“That’s a really important part of what we do,” Franzen said. “It colors all the decisions we make. It’s something we’ve become known for and something we’re really proud of.”