A Native Son Finds a Fortune in the Gold Rush
Born in Royalton, Vermont, Frederick Billings grew up in Woodstock, and Woodstock remained his home until the end of his life. In 1835, after an unfavorable civil judgment, his father, Oel Billings, had to move the family over the hill to Woodstock, to live in legal proximity to the Windsor County Sheriff. Family tradition recalls that that young Frederick, who was in charge of driving the family wayward pig on the journey, paused wearily as he passed the Marsh mansion. He resolved never again to be poor – someday, he wanted to own that place.
Whether or not the legend is true, young Frederick knew the Marsh farm well. As he grew up in Woodstock, he knew it as the most prominent address in Woodstock. He was driven to excel at school, at Kimball Union Academy, and later at the University of Vermont. He applied himself and emerged with a solid, liberal education and a Whiggish point of view. Then he read law.
In 1849 Frederick and his sister and brother-in-law sailed for California. As soon as he arrived in San Francisco, Frederick unpacked a ready-painted shingle and went to work as the first lawyer in the gold-rush town.
Tragically, his sister died a few days later, the victim of a fever contracted in the Panamanian jungle, but Frederick stayed on. He did well – much better than most who spent their time digging gold. Dealing in the resolution of land claims descending from Spanish ownership and making a number of astute real estate investments, he quickly became one of the wealthiest men in California, and one of its foremost citizens.
A Hometown Hero Returns, Begins to Transform Property
In California Frederick Billings developed his awareness of place. He took great pleasure in getting away from the raucous congestion of San Francisco to explore. Within a year of his arrival he was commenting on the need to preserve California’s natural wonders, and in the spring of 1852, less than a year after the Yosemite Valley was first viewed by English-speaking explorers, and Billings made the first of many visits. His conservation impulse was rooted in patriotism, romanticism, and a religious sense of duty, as well as delight in awesome natural wonders. In 1863, when the photographer Carleton E. Watkins made an album of Yosemite, Billings acquired a set and sent it to the naturalist Louis Agassiz, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the preservation of the valley as a Federal reserve. The next year, photographs from the Watkins album appeared on the desks of key congressmen who assured the passage of the bill for Yosemite.
In 1862 Frederick Billings married Julia Parmly of New York, and in 1864 they returned to Woodstock. That year Frederick read Man and Nature by George Perkins Marsh. He was deeply impressed by this geographical treatise by his former neighbor. Looking around Woodstock after so many years away and having witnessed how quickly California had changed, Frederick Billings could see the damage that development had wrought in Vermont. By the 1860s, at least 75 percent of Vermont’s forest cover had been cleared. Most of the hills between Woodstock and Royalton were bare and in many areas overgrazed by Merino sheep. Erosion scarred the hills and choked the streams. The wild game and fish that Billings remembered were gone. Marsh’s book was a persuasive synthesis, and the Vermont held evidence that Marsh was right.
In 1869 Frederick and Julia Billings bought the Marsh estate and farm. As the wealthiest inhabitant of Woodstock by far, it seemed suitable that he should acquire the town’s most prominent piece of real estate. However, in 1869 the Marsh property gave only a glimmer of its potential. Billings immediately set about a thorough campaign of remodeling, landscaping, and construction. By the time that Caroline Marsh visited late in the year, renovation was well underway. Continuing well into the 1880s, Billings developed his farm and a forest park on Mount Tom. In 1871 he established the foundation of a dairy herd of purebred Jersey cows. He organized his agricultural buildings in a line through the meadow, along the boundary of the Windsor County Fairgrounds. He had tried to buy back the fairgrounds but was unsuccessful, and the fair would remain on the site until the Great Depression.
Billings Melds Industrial Efficiency With Conservation Techniques
Today the line of Billings’s farm buildings bisects the farm. The land south of the line historically was cropland (as it remains today) – often planted with a single crop of corn or oats. A turn-of-the-century State Agricultural Report includes a photograph of the field labeled, “the largest corn field in Vermont.”
At the same time that he was developing his Woodstock estate, Frederick Billings became involved in the Northern Pacific Railroad – Billings, Montana, was later named in his honor. As a transcontinental railroad builder, Billings drew upon his Californian experience and his fascination with the West as he applied his ambition and industrial instincts to the practical problems of westward expansion. A proponent of industrial efficiency, he melded his industrialist sense with concepts of stewardship, progress, and conservation, embracing the ideas of George Perkins Marsh. Although Billings’s conservation activities were most visible in Woodstock, he made an impact on the State of Vermont as well. In 1883 he was appointed to Vermont’s new Forestry Commission, and was a leader in shaping the state’s first forestry policy. Back in Woodstock, he pursued an ambitious, systematic program of planting stands of Austrian larch and Norwegian spruce, in addition to native species. Today, the Mount Tom forest is the oldest actively managed forest in the United States.
New Managers Makes Farming, Forestry The Best Around
To accomplish these things, Billings sought out the best staff and expertise available. After disappointments with a couple of former managers, in 1884 Billings hired George Aitken as farm manager, giving him responsibility for the mountain forest as well as the farm. A native Scot, Aitken was well known in the worlds of scientific agriculture and forestry – his associates included William Dempster Hoard and Gifford Pinchot, both of whom visited Billings Farm. Aitken took firm control of the Billings property, and the development of the estate accelerated in Billings’s final years. Even after Billings’s death in 1890, Aitken continued to develop the estate. The farm reached its pinnacle in 1893, when Aitken showed a string of 22 Jerseys (plus sheep and swine) at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, winning the best herd of breed award and the award for the third best herd overall.