Hildene is considered the most significant Lincoln site outside of Illinois. Situated in Manchester, Vermont, it is the site where the Lincoln family lived from 1905 to 1975. Built by Robert Lincoln, the oldest child of President Abraham Lincoln, the 412-acre estate consists of the mansion, formal gardens, “Sunbeam” (a 1903 Pullman Palace Car), a goat dairy, Dene farm, and miles of trails for hiking and snowshoeing. The site’s unique aspect is that the Hildene Foundation, which preserves the property, has transformed Lincoln’s values of integrity, perseverance, and civic responsibility into actions: sustainability, preservation, conservation, and education, all of which you can experience when you visit.
Here are six reasons you will enjoy your time at Hildene, which a friend and I visited on our 10-day road trip through Vermont and Maine.
1. The History
Three generations of Lincolns lived here, beginning with Robert, the only Lincoln child to survive to adulthood. Construction of Hildene started in 1905, and Lincoln’s descendants lived here for the next 70 years. The last family member to live here was Peggy Beckwith. When Robert built Hildene, he was president of the Pullman Company, one of the largest manufacturing companies in the nation.
Spend time reliving Lincoln’s legacy with the second-floor exhibit on Lincoln titled “The American Ideal: Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural.” The exhibition displays Lincoln artifacts including one of only three of his original top hats. Perhaps most important is examining Lincoln’s words from his presidential speech of March 4, 1865. The address is explored in 13 clauses to decipher the deeper meanings of his message and compare it to his first inaugural speech. Do check the website for questions to think about before, during, and after attending the exhibit.
2. The Welcome Center And Museum Store
Housed in the original carriage barn, the welcome center and museum store is ideal for beginning your visit. Here you will find two videos: one on the Lincolns’ history in Vermont and the second on the Sunbeam restoration. Both provide background information, which helps in understanding the entire complex.
Check out the Make Your Own Picnic Possibilities featuring Hildene and local Vermont products — everything you need for a tasty picnic. Selections include dairies and meats, crackers and chips, spreads, sweet treats, and beverages. Be sure to taste the Hildene Farm goat cheese and honey from resident beehives. Pick your favorites and enjoy eating your picnic at the tables behind the welcome center. Gluten-free and nut-free options are also available. Hildene supplies the wicker picnic basket, cloth napkins, and compostable plates and utensils.
Behind the buildings are the cutting and kitchen gardens, a butterfly garden, and a soft fruit cage. In the Plant a Row Vegetable Garden, volunteers grow vegetables for the local food bank while the Butterfly Garden provides habitat, food, and water for butterflies and caterpillars. Stop to ponder and marvel at the Observation Bee Hive and learn about the role of bees in our planet’s ecology. Recognizing the importance of birds, Hildene also takes part in bird walks and annual bird counts.
From here, a shuttle transports guests throughout the property. Each primary site has a shuttle stop so that you can hop on and off as desired. As well, each has a docent to provide further information.
3. The Mansion
As you step into the 8,000-square-foot Georgian Revival Home, enjoy the music of the 1908 Auburn player piano. Besides the player piano, there are two Steinway grands. Antique buffs will enjoy studying the many pristine pieces from the turn of the 20th century. Records show that 90 percent of the furnishings are original.
On the second floor, the guest rooms were used by many notable folks, including President Taft. President Taft shared several qualities with Robert Lincoln — both were public servants, both served as Secretary of War, and both loved golf. President Taft visited Hildene four times, once when he was president and for three visits after. Be sure to stop in Mary’s second-floor sitting room to view the formal garden and peony celebration. Take time also to enjoy the scenic views of the Taconic and Green Mountains. This floor also houses the Lincoln Exhibit.
4. Formal Garden And Celebration Of Peonies
Fashioned after gardens in Europe, Hildene’s formal garden — designed in 1907 by Jessie (President Lincoln’s granddaughter, daughter to Robert Lincoln and Mary Harlan Lincoln) as a gift for her mother — resembles a stained glass window. Many original plants remain, and the innovative design is maintained. Late May through mid-June, join in the Annual Celebration of the Peonies, during which you can delight in thousands of peony blooms’ splendor. Records date back 100 years showing the cultivation of the peonies. The American Peony Society has honored two peonies from the garden, the Hildene and the Jessie Lincoln. As well, Hildene received the Victorian Society in America’s 2003 Preservation Award.
The garden features the values of conservation, ecology, and sustainability. As well, each winter, many plants and shrubs are left to provide habitat for birds and insects.
5. Sunbeam And The Many Voices Exhibit
Sunbeam is the restored 1903 Pullman Palace Car that takes visitors back in time to when rail travel was luxurious. The car has an exhibit titled “Many Voices,” which encapsulates social history from 1863-1963. Three voices look at history: 1. Voices of the wealthy, 2. Voices of the Pullman Porter, and 3. Voices of current guests. Wealthy guests included the Vanderbilts and the Mellons. In the early days, being a porter was a well-respected job. Unfortunately, much of that respect was lost. This treatment led to the formation of trade unions. Current guests are invited to engage in civil discourse by leaving comments for others to read. This exhibit elevated Hildene to recognition on the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
6. Dene Farm And Goat Dairy
The name Hildene stands for a hill with a valley and a river — and that is what you will see at the 60-acre Dene Farm. There are education programs for all ages — including all levels of schooling from elementary to high school. Check this link to see the latest calendar. Older students are encouraged to work on the farm and integrate their studies in a practical setting that highlights food systems, science, ecology, and sustainability. Younger students focus on environmental education and social history. The teaching greenhouse is the setting where students focus on horticulture, economics, agriculture, and ecology.
At the goat dairy, visitors can view the cheese-making process, from the goats’ milking to the processing and packaging of the final product. Take time to cuddle a baby Nubian goat and relish in its warmth. Sustainable practices at the goat dairy include solar paneling and a wood-burning furnace.
The forested areas are a model for stewardship. They provide habitat and food for wildlife and insects and sustainable forestry experiences. Hildene offers bird walks and takes part in annual bird counts. There are also 80 acres of protected wetlands. Be sure to also visit the floating boardwalk over the Barren Kill Wetlands.
Hildene truly is a delight to visit. Whether you are a history buff, antique lover, railway enthusiast, animal lover, or plant lover, there is much to enjoy and learn at Hildene.
Hildene is located in Manchester in Southern Vermont, just off the historic route 7A North. Find detailed directions for reaching the estate here.
General admission includes access to all the sites mentioned as well as to 12 miles of walking trails. Also available, at an extra charge, are a guided tour of the mansion and a behind-the-scenes tour. Group tours and specialty tours for the visually impaired are available. There is an elevator in the mansion, however, not all Hildene sites are accessible.
Hildene is open daily, year-round except for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Plan to spend at least half a day at Hildene — a whole day would be preferable. Indeed, Hildene is worthy of repeat visits. As one shuttle driver told us: “I love Hildene. It is always growing!”
Consider staying where we did, at the Ira Allen House — a delightful, historic bed and breakfast located within a few miles of Hildene. Depending on the season, make your Hildene visit part of the perfect Vermont fall foliage road trip and enjoy one or more of the most stunning hikes in Vermont, too.