In 1934, Mary French, a granddaughter of Frederick Billings, and Laurance Rockefeller were married in the old white Congregational Church in Woodstock. Mary had grown up spending summers in Woodstock, living in the mansion, and roaming the Mount Tom forest on her pony. With their marriage, Laurance adopted Woodstock as his summer home, and as the years passed his affection for the Vermont town grew. Woodstock became one of his important conservation interests, and in many respects, Laurance Rockefeller’s activities in Woodstock became a microcosm of his conservation career.
Rockefeller Makes an Impact on his Adopted Hometown
After Mary French Rockefeller’s mother, Mary Montagu Billings French, died in 1951, Mary Rockefeller came to own the mansion and its forested surroundings. Through the 1950s, Mary and Laurance Rockefeller remodeled the house, grounds, and outbuildings, creating a more livable space while respecting its Victorian detail and furnishings as an expression of their sense of the house’s heritage. This was affirmed in June of 1967, when Lady Bird Johnson visited Woodstock to dedicate the mansion as a National Historic Landmark.
Laurance Rockefeller said that his interest in Woodstock flowed simply from the fact that it was Mary’s home – his active participation in the shaping of Woodstock’s future grew as a natural consequence of their shared interests and their love of the outdoors. He saw the dangers that unwise development could pose for Woodstock, and drawing upon his experience in conservation and preservation elsewhere, he worked to guide the town in environmentally sound directions. He firmly believed that landscape and townscape must be considered together – that one could not be preserved without the other.
With this philosophy in mind, he purchased and replaced the aging Woodstock Inn, greatly improving the country club and ski areas and making the Woodstock Resort Corporation a mainstay of the economic health of the community, while helping to preserve the ambiance of the small New England town. In one of Laurance’s greatest gifts to the community, he funded the underground routing of electrical and telephone wires throughout the village, greatly enhancing Woodstock’s historical and aesthetic appearance. At the same time, he protected the village by acquiring many acres of open space to assure their preservation. Laurance Rockefeller’s activities in Woodstock put into practice the conservation agenda that he had helped the nation embrace, combined with his personal affection for the community, its history, and the heritage of Mary’s family. In 1974 he purchased the farm from the Billings Dairy.
In 1968 Mary and Laurance Rockefeller had created the Woodstock Foundation, Inc., as a philanthropic vehicle for furthering the betterment of Woodstock. Laurance later described the foundation’s objectives as follows:
Through the Woodstock Foundation, it is my hope, in the broadest sense, to help preserve the environment and historical integrity of Woodstock, and more specifically the Billings Family heritage that has been so important to the community for more than 100 years.
The foundation’s activities were intended to “add to the balance of Woodstock and have a beneficial effect on the long-term economic vitality and stability of the community.” Primary objectives would include the preservation of open space, the preservation of the historical values of rural Vermont, the expansion of the outdoor recreational opportunities that are inherent in the natural beauty of the Woodstock area, the encouragement of the best practices of forest management, and the creation of broad educational values of benefit to Vermonters as well as visitors to the area.
In 1972 the Woodstock Foundation launched the Vermont Folklife Project with a mission of collecting, studying, and preserving the rapidly vanishing remnants of traditional farm life in the region of East Central Vermont. This vision resonated with Laurance Rockefeller’s perception of the special human values of traditional Vermont culture – values that included a self-reliant work ethic, a close human relationship with the land, and a farm family-based sense of husbandry. With the 1974 re-acquisition of the farm, the folklife project became the precursor of a new farm museum that would interpret rural Vermont farm culture around 1890 as well as the Billings Farm itself.
In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of farm manager Bob Lord, Billings Farm regained it national preeminence as a championship breeder of Jersey dairy cows. At the same time, between 1980 and 1983 the upper group of farm buildings were adapted as exhibition galleries for the Billings Farm & Museum. In June 1983 Mary and Laurance Rockefeller formally opened the Billings Farm & Museum. A quarter century later, and after more than a million visitors, the museum is recognized as among the nation’s premier farm museums. Situated at an operating dairy farm, the museum has a dual mission of education and preservation. As an educational museum it collects, cares for, and interprets the heritage and values of the Billings Farm and of the surrounding region of rural Vermont, and it also preserves the Billings Farm as a significant landscape and a historic place. As an important cultural institution, it has become a “gateway to Vermont’s rural heritage.”
The creation of the museum gave an educational purpose to the historic Billings Farm. As the museum evolved, the farm increasingly came to be thought of as a historic place. In the late 1980s the museum restored the farm’s 1890 Farm House, a pivotal part of Frederick Billings’s progressive farm. The creation of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in the 1990s underscored the national significance of the mansion and the Mount Tom forest, as well as the farm, and the independently owned and operated Billings Farm & Museum became its National Park’s operating partner.
Toward the end of his long life, Laurance Rockefeller commented that, for him, the impulse for conservation was rooted in a humanistic desire to help fellow humans find and do those things that would enhance their healthy relationship with their environment. He believed that places of natural beauty, heritage, aesthetic value, and recreational opportunity had the power to inspire and lift the human spirit. Mary French Rockefeller died in 1997, and Laurance Spelman Rockefeller died in 2004, but their spirits can be found all around forested hills, farm meadows, and historic streetscapes of Woodstock, at the Billings Farm, in the National Park, at the Inn, and in the village that they loved.