Halls of Hildene

Hartford Courant staff writer

For armchair historians and students of Abraham Lincoln, clues to the life of the 16th president aren't found only in log cabins in Illinois, battlefields in southern Pennsylvania or restored theaters in Washington, D.C.

One good collection of Lincoln artifacts can be found in this picturesque New England town.

Down a treed entryway 5 miles east of the bustling central streets -- where Norman Rockwell small-town charm is gradually giving way to designer-outlet chic -- is stately Hildene.

The restored 24-room Georgian- revival-style mansion would be worth a stop for history buffs just for a glimpse at the lives of the wealthy from nearly two centuries ago.

But Hildene, so named to convey "hill" and "valley," was also the final home of Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham Lincoln and the only one of four sons who lived to adulthood.

Born in 1843, the younger Lincoln was 21 when his father was assassinated. Briefly a Union captain who didn't see much action, he nonetheless was present at Appomattox when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

Educated at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Robert Lincoln graduated from Harvard and began law school there. In 1865, he and his mother moved to Chicago, where he finished his law education and started a firm after the great Chicago fire in 1871. Another partner in Isham, Lincoln and Beal was Edward Isham, a Harvard man who grew up in Manchester. Lincoln became enamored of the Vermont countryside when he visited Isham, who had purchased a pre-Revolutionary house on Route 7A that he named for a local Revolutionary War hero, Gideon Ormsby.

"You're my best friend and law partner," Isham reportedly said to Lincoln. "You're not going to be my next-door neighbor."

So it wasn't until Isham died that Lincoln purchased hundreds of acres of land in Manchester. In 1902, he hired an architectural firm to build a summer home in the lush Battenkill valley with views of the Taconic range to the west and the Green Mountains to the east.

By the time the massive summer home was finished in 1905, Lincoln was 62. For the most part, the major events of his life were over -- the assassination of his father in 1865, the death of his younger brother six years later, and the fragile state of his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, which led Robert Lincoln to commit her to an institution, but not without a very public trial over her sanity (mother and son reconciled a year before her death in 1882).

The messy insanity trial may have ruined Robert Lincoln's own chances for the presidency, though his name still surfaced in election years from 1884 to 1912. Lincoln did serve as secretary of war for President Garfield in 1881 and became minister to England for President Benjamin Harrison in 1889.

Big business was a calling for Lincoln, and when George Pullman died in 1897, Robert Lincoln was made acting president of the Pullman Co., headquartered near Chicago, becoming full president in 1901. Over the summer, he frequently conducted business at Hildene, where he also pursued hobbies such as golf and astronomy. He built his own small observatory, taking advantage of the clear Vermont sky.

Even without the historical connection, Hildene would be a fascinating edifice, with eight fireplaces and a number of striking features, in particular a 1,000-pipe Aeolian organ, installed in 1908 as a present to his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, daughter of a U.S. senator from Iowa. It's believed to be the oldest residential pipe organ with a player attachment still in its original location and in working order. After going silent for nearly four decades, it was renovated in 1980 and a song from one of its 242 rolls is played on every tour of the house, with sound as it was then -- big and commanding, like a monster stereo or home-entertainment unit from a modern house.

The formal gardens themselves are an attraction to many, and Hildene is often booked by couples holding large weddings.

But the historical connection makes the home special. Behind glass stands one of his father's famous stovepipe hats, one of just three thought to still exist. The younger Lincoln also cherished a particular mirror from the White House dressing room, because that is where Abraham Lincoln is believed to have last glanced at himself before heading out to Ford's Theatre for that ill-fated performance of "Our American Cousin."

Hildene also holds a number of volumes from the 16th president's library, including an encyclopedia from his Springfield, Ill., home and a biography of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, which was the source material for the 1860 speech at Cooper Union in New York that boosted his presidential campaign.

Hildene is more than just a repository of Lincoln family items, since as sole heir, Robert Lincoln inherited his mother's belongings as well. But Robert Todd Lincoln was a man with connections of his own. One of the two bedrooms on the main floor was set aside as a guestroom for President Taft, a friend, in 1912.

The almost classical tragedy that visited Abraham Lincoln's family -- death, followed by madness -- was concluded with the end of any direct lineage just 16 years ago.

Of the three children of Robert Lincoln and his wife, the only son, Abraham, died at 16. Their daughter Mary married Charles Isham, son of his law partner; they had one son, Lincoln Isham, who married but never had children.

Their other daughter, Jessie, married Warren Beckwith and had two children. Robert "Bud" Lincoln Beckwith married but had no children; he died in 1985. The other offspring, Mary "Peggy" Lincoln Beckwith, never married, yet she was the one Lincoln descendent who went on to occupy Hildene.

Inheriting the estate in 1938 at age 40, she was famous for her fondness for wildlife. Among other interests -- including photography, art, sculpting and skiing -- she was quite famous locally for being a pilot, landing her plane in the Meadowlands field below the estate.

After the death of Peggy Lincoln Beckwith in 1975, the nonprofit Friends of Hildene stepped in to bolster "the preservation of Hildene's open land and the restoration of those buildings that best serve the public as an educational and cultural resource and as a memorial to the Lincoln family."

That has been done stylishly, preserving many original furnishings and family personal effects.


Hildene is open May 15 through Oct. 31. Visitors are invited to stroll around the grounds as long as they want, and the views of the nearby mountain ranges any time of year are inviting.

Tours are $8 for adults, $4 for children ages 6-14. Information: 802-362-1788 or at www.hildene.org.


We enhanced our visit by walking from a fancy bed and breakfast that was indelibly linked to Hildene. The Inn at Ormsby Hill, walking distance from Hildene through a wooded road, was the home of Edward Isham, whom Robert Todd Lincoln often visited.

A manor house originally built in 1764 by Gideon Ormsby, it's almost 150 years older than Hildene and one of the oldest structures in Manchester. In the basement is one of the town's earliest jail cells. Legend has it that American Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, who also was the leader of the rebel patriots Green Mountain Boys, once hid in the meat-smoking room and that the structure could have been a safehouse for the Underground Railroad.

For most of the 20th century, the home was used to house underprivileged boys from New York City so they could experience country life. Since 1987 it's been a bed and breakfast, with all 10 rooms renovated for use in a manner Lincoln could never have imagined.

The antique feel and working fireplaces may have been familiar, but not the luxurious modern fixtures, such as two-person Jacuzzis in most bedrooms. Playing up its reputation as a dreamy romantic getaway, the Inn is also big with flowers and silver wine buckets. But the most memorable part of the stay is the breakfast, which in the hands of Ted and Chris Sprague, owners since 1995, is a delicious gourmet affair, capped by sinful desserts. So famous is their spread, it became the basis of a flavor for Kellogg's top-of-the-line Country Inns Specialties Cereal.

With prices from $190 to $245 on weekdays and $255 to $310 on weekends (up to $370 for special holidays), the Inn at Ormsby Hill can be costly. Of course, there are other places to stay in Manchester at varied prices. Contact the Manchester Chamber of Commerce at 802-362-2100 or visit the state tourism deparment's Web site, www.1-800-Vermont.com.

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