Most people associate Lincoln with Illinois. They do not expect to find Lincoln history in Vermont. On a recent trip to the Green Mountain state, my family visited Hildene, the home of the Lincoln family for 70 years… Robert Todd Lincoln, that is, son of the President. He was the only child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive to adulthood. His father was born in a log cabin and completed little formal schooling. Robert studied at Harvard, served as ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of War under two presidents and ended up president of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois.
In the summer of 1864 with the Civil War raging, young Robert visited Manchester, Vermont with his mother and younger brother. The beauty of the area made a deep impression on Robert and forty years later he returned to purchase the land on which he would build his summer home, Hildene, an old English word meaning hill and valley with a stream. The home was completed in 1905.
Robert is not nearly as well known and beloved as his father and I didn’t know much about him. The Friends of Hildene managed to purchase and save the estate when the last Lincoln descendant living there died in 1975. The house, one of several places the Lincoln family lived including Chicago and Georgetown in Washington, D.C., is a magnificent example of Georgian Revival style. But apart from the original furnishings and a 1908 restored working 1000-pipe Aeolian pipe organ in the entrance hall on the first floor, three things stood out to me.
The view. Few historic homes have such a spectacular setting. In my opinion only Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia rivals Hildene’s vistas of the Battenkill Valley and the surrounding mountains and meadows . It’s sprawling garden with thousands of peonies overlooks the stunning green mountains.
The observatory. Lincoln, a serious amateur astronomer, constructed an observatory with a six-inch refracting telescope that is still used today by the local astronomy club.
Sunbeam, a restored Pullman car, considered by some to be the finest example of a restored Gilded Age Pullman car. As first general counsel of the Pullman Car Company and then president, and later chairman of the board, Lincoln’s association with the company ran deep and the inclusion of this history at the site was very appropriate. I’d never been on a Pullman car and was fascinated to walk through one and see how the wealthy traveled. The site features a timeline of Pullman history and offers varying perspectives on the Pullman experience, including the Pullman porters. I wanted to see more Pullman history though, especially about the Pullman strike of 1894.
Despite a family emergency which caused my visit to be cut short, I thoroughly enjoyed this other Lincoln home. Its collection even includes one of supposedly three Abraham Lincoln top hats in existence. Naturally it was out on loan to the Reagan Library in California.
Not far from the front door of Hildene, a square of bricks embedded in the grass outlines the dimensions of the cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. It hits home the stunning contrast of the distance one generation can travel. I suppose it didn’t hurt to be a beloved president’s only surviving son.