Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historic Park (hereafter known as MBR) in Woodstock Vermont is 77 miles south of St Johnsbury. It’s the only National Park in Vermont in my opinion, though if you google the question they will tell you the Appalachian Trail is a National park.
Anyway, I wanted to see it and find out what the story was. MBR is really two entities now, the former Billings Farm and the MBR Estate all of which was donated to the National Park Service by Laurence and Mary Rockefeller in 1992. Lawrence is the son of John D Rockefeller Jr. famous to me for saving Acadia and the Grand Tetons though the legacy of the Rockefellers to the National Park Service is far more extensive. Mary Rockefeller, the granddaughter of Frederick and Julia Billings, inherited the estate in 1954.
Laurence and Mary Rockefeller
The Rockefeller Estate is free, the Billings Farm has a fee and is a working farm particularly great for families. They have many programs going on as their information sign shows.
To begin I went into the Billings Welcome Center and saw the excellent film explaining who these people were and why this place is important in the history of conservation. It really is a wonderful story and I learned a great deal that I did not know.
In as short a summary as I can relate, George Perkins Marsh is described as a polymath scholar and diplomat who in 1864 published Man and Nature the first book to “challenge the general belief that human impact on nature was generally benign or negligible and charge that ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean had brought about their own collapse by their abuse of the environment”. His book argued that deforestation was dangerous and that man must live in harmony with the natural environment. He is considered the Father of Conservation.
Marsh’s writings greatly influenced Frederick Billings. Though Billings had grown up in Woodstock seeing the Marsh Mansion and Mount Tom behind it, he went west to make his fortune as a lawyer for mining claims during the California gold rush. When he returned home, he saw that Marsh’s warnings of deforestation had played out there. He bought the former Marsh property and set about restoring the forest and implementing new forestry management and farming practices that would enrich rather than harm the land. After Billings’ death his wife and 3 daughters managed and improved his conservation work at the estate.
Mary Billings French Rockefeller was the granddaughter of Frederick Billings and when she inherited the estate, she and her husband Laurence moved there. Laurence was one of the country’s foremost philanthropists and conservationists and continued the ecological philosophy of Marsh and the practical conservationist approach of Billings. They opened the Billings Farm and Museum in 1983 and donated the remainder of the estate including Mount Tom in 1992.
The film, “A Place in the Land” is simply excellent with amazing vintage footage. I’ve now seen it twice and am sorry it did not win the academy award for which it was nominated.
Click the map to enlarge it and see the size of the park and the location of its two separate sections and visitor centers.
I had booked two tour of the “mansion” on line was glad I did as they only take 12 people at a time and if I hadn’t pre booked, I wouldn’t have had the tours.
I arrived at the park at 10am when the Farm Visitor Center Opened and saw the 32 minute film at 10:15. I’ve learned not to visit first and do the VC last. You won’t have the information you need.
The film greatly helped me on the 12:30 house tour. But not knowing how many miles of trails the park had, I hadn’t arrived early enough to hike up to the Pogue and on to the high point over looking the town of Woodstock. I was told 3-4 hours to the Pogue and back. Further to the high point. That was too bad. I really wanted to do that.
Click the map below to enlarge it. The Pogue is the lake I was hoping to get to. I had to turn back before reaching it. The house at the far right.
In the time I had, I hiked up up up and enjoyed the wooded lands as did what appeared to be many local people running and walking dogs. The trails reminded me of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park.
Although I had to turn around before reaching the Pogue, on the way back down, I took a different trail and later learned that this cute cottage was used by the Rockefellers as a guest house. It’s not on any tour and I don’t know when it was built but it looks Victorian with all the decorative work. The park ranger told me what they use it for now but of course I can’t remember 3 weeks later.
I arrived at the NPS Visitor Center and loved the sign on the door.
As I don’t travel with a dog, I don’t know what it has to do in order to be a Bark Ranger though I think that is an unfortunate title since I doubt they want to encourage barking. I do understand it rhymes with Park Ranger so that’s cute.
Wish I had seen a dog “taking the pledge” Sorry for the glare from the door glass.
I checked in at the desk and after introductions and some IMO unnecessary “theme” stuff. We headed over to the mansion.
The ranger did a great job of the tour though I really thought too much of the time prior to entering the house was spent on “the theme”. I don’t even remember what it was. Something about what is a house what is a home. I think.
We entered up the porch and through the front door. This was the view from the porch which I’m sure was even more grand before the trees were so large. I have that trouble at the farm. My view of Humpback Rocks in the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ranges of mountains beyond it has gotten nearly obscured in the 45 years we’ve owned the property
I loved the golden oak woodwork throughout the house and on the stairs. It is my favorite wood and we have it all through our farmhouse.
Though not a great picture, it does show the amazing wooden ceilings.
Notice the parquet floors in the dining room and the hallway in the following picture.
On the second floor were 4 bedrooms with either 3 or 4 more on the third floor.
The Billings had 7 children. The furnishings date from the time of the Rockefellers though most of the paintings are from the Billings collection.
One of the indications of the age of the house is that every room has a fireplace.
I don’t remember if this room was called the study or the library but it appears to have been a gathering room for the family with many places to sit and book shelves lined two walls.
I was the last one to leave this room as I wanted to read the book titles.
Pretty sure I could fit right in that little chair and look through the books but sadly, not allowed.
When the tour was over inside, I wandered out to the gardens which were a nice stroll from the house.
By this time it was nearly 3:00 and I was getting hungry. I’d brought my lunch and had noticed several people eating theirs on the wicker porch furniture when the tour had begun so I headed back to the house.
I happened to notice the unique dating of the house and took this quick poorly arranged shot of the 1806 date.
Apparently this is late in the day for eating lunch so I had the entire porch and its view to myself.
I had arranged for another tour at 3:30 which took me back through the house and talked in detail about the Billings Paintings.
Frederick and Julia Billings were avid collectors. They were particularly interested in American artists and promoting an appreciation in the American landscape. The house has one of the largest private collections of Hudson River School paintings in the United States. Sadly for me though most of the ones I wanted to see by Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt were out for conservation or refurbishing or whatever it is called. I was very disappointed to find they were not there.
Though the buildings close at 5:00, the 20 miles of trails and carriage roads are open from dawn to dusk but I was tiring and had an hour and 20 minute drive ahead of me.
I highly recommend our National Parks which are becoming loved to death and seriously under funded. This one is quite unique in honoring pioneers of conservation. If you visit Vermont, don’t miss it. Where else can you see a great film, take interesting tours (maybe see wonderful paintings), hike to your heart’s content and all for free.
Not enough of my taxes at work.
Democracy at its very best.