December 16, 2017

Hildene, where you visit the Lincolns

Hildene in Manchester, Vermont, was the summer home of the Lincolns.

Hildene in Manchester, Vermont, was the summer home of the Lincolns.

Hidden in the picturesque mountains of western Vermont, just outside the village of Manchester, is a house museum called Hildene, where you visit the Lincolns.  And a house museum it is, indeed.  House museums under the TroysArt Destinations tab are usually highly recommended to get a sense of the cultural and societal influences of an area.  But the summer home owned by the heirs of Abraham Lincoln is not only a house but also a shrine to one of the country’s most significant presidents.

The formal dining room of the Lincoln family at Hildene.

The formal dining room of the Lincoln family at Hildene.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; and the only son to survive into adulthood.  When Robert became the Chairman of the Pullman Company, the biggest manufacturing corporation of the early 20th Century, he built a summer home that he named Hildene.  This lovely Georgian mansion was the centerpiece of 400 acres of wooded forests and scenic valleys—not too shabby for a man whose father was born in a log cabin.

Built in 1905, the home remained in the hands of the only Lincoln descendants until 1975.  And it is furnished almost entirely with Lincoln family furniture, paintings, pictures, and artifacts.

Formal gardens of the Lincoln family's summer home, Hildene.

Formal gardens of the Lincoln family’s summer home, Hildene.

Though 40,000 people tour the landmark yearly, I was one of the only people on the estate that day.  And when I walked into the mansion I was not only greeted by docent Bruce White but also by a grandfather clock in the foyer chiming 1:00.  Bruce grinned and explained, “The clock repairman just left and that is the first time this clock has been heard in over a decade.”  What a great omen for a special tour.

Bruce gave me just the right amount of background and turned me loose to tour on my own.  (And regular readers to TroysArt Destinations know that I favor self-guided house museum tours over those scripted old dusty docents.)  But first, after pointing out the massive built-in 1,000 pipe Aeolian Organ, Bruce played a few selections, filling the house with music.  I have seen organ pipes built into historic homes before but have never heard one.  Impressive.

A cast of Abraham Lincoln's face.

A cast of Abraham Lincoln’s face.

Fires burned in each fireplace imbuing the moderately scaled rooms with warmth and life.  Family photos adorned the tables and open books rested on ottomans as if I had just walked in to visit one of the president’s heirs.  There are clothes in the closets, golf clubs in Robert Lincoln’s dressing room, and food in the kitchen.

On the second floor is an artifacts room with Abraham Lincoln memorabilia.  The collection encompasses photographs, documents, sculpture, personal items, a cast of Lincoln’s face, and even one of Lincoln’s stove pipe hats.

The last of Vermont's seasonal color on a forest road at Hildene.

The last of Vermont’s seasonal color on a forest road at Hildene.

The grounds include formal gardens and 12 miles of walking trails.  One of the trails is punctuated by the restored Pullman Palace Car Sunbeam, the Learjet of the early 20th Century which saw use economic potentates and presidential campaigns.  The mahogany paneled rail car could sleep 18 guests and contains an observation room and a staff quarters.

As an afterthought of the tour I queried Bruce what one of the strangest questions any guest had asked him during a tour.  He pondered for a moment and answered, “Once while showing guests the Pullman Car a woman sat down and asked if this was the train to the next attraction.”  Her train had obviously passed the station a long time ago…