SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 – There’s so much to do in Manchester, Vermont, it’s impossible to appreciate it all in just one day. And the same thing can be said about one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, Hildene, the home of Robert Todd Lincoln.
“We have three primary areas that we want to teach our visitors about,” said Polly Raine, creative and marketing director at Hildene. “We talk about cultural heritage, which of course includes the Lincoln family; we talk about environmental stewardship; and we try to get people interested in civic involvement. When Hildene was first established as a tourist attraction, it was just a house museum. Now it is so much more.”
The Lincolns, that is Mary, Robert and Tad, the wife and two sons of our nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, first came to the Manchester area in 1864. They were looking for a comfortable summer respite from the troubles in Washington, D.C., and Mary had intended to introduce her husband to Vermont at some point during his second term as president. The evil exploits of John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, ruined those plans.
Robert Lincoln, who became a powerful lawyer and businessman, returned to Manchester nearly four decades later at the turn of the 20th century and built Hildene on 392 acres of land with his wife, Mary Harlan. Peggy Beckwith, the great-grandaughter of Abraham Lincoln, was the last family member to reside at Hildene, and a few years after she died in 1975 the estate, now with 412 acres, was taken over by a nonprofit group, the Friends of Hildene, and opened to the public for tours in 1978.
“After you go to the welcome center, the first stop for most visitors is our 8,000-square-foot mansion, made in the Georgian Revival style, which Robert and his wife, Mary, built in 1905,” said Raine. “Behind the home is a beautiful formal garden with views of the Green Mountains and Taconic Range above us, and the Battenkill Valley below.”
Also on the grounds is a Pullman car exhibit with an actual Pullman car from the late 19th century. Robert Lincoln was an attorney for the owners when the Pullman porters, typically Black men, went on strike in 1894, and he later became owner of the company. While the Pullman Car Company raised the standard of living for many Blacks during the post-Civil War period, like many other large corporations it also took advantage of its workforce.
“The story is complicated, and we do struggle with how to tell the story because it is so complex,” said Raine. “The name of the exhibit is ‘Many Voices,’ and there is so much to say about it. We tell it from the Black porters’ view, but also from the company and Robert Todd Lincoln. And we urge people to have important conversations about the issue.”
When visitors are done with the history components at Hildene, it’s time to check out the farm animals and hit the hiking trails.
“We have a working farm with livestock, including a lot of baby goats,” said Raine, who added that there are also cattle, alpaca, sheep, chickens and pigs at Hildene. “The farm extends all the way down to the Battenkill Valley along River Road, and it also serves as a classroom for our high school, Burton Academy, where we teach students about sustainability and land stewardship. And then there are trails. Beautiful trails with wonderful wetlands. You can spend a lot of time at Hildene.”
When Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe talks to first-time visitors to the area about how to spend their time, he usually starts out by mentioning Hildene. The Lincoln home, however, is only a start.
“We have a mix of wonderful things to do in Manchester, and there is certainly more than you can do in just one day,” he said. “Off the top of my head Hildene comes to mind, and that’s certainly a big hit with historic-house people. And then there are the Lincoln enthusiasts, and the Pullman exhibit is a real draw for people who are passionate about railroads.”
O’Keefe, a native of St. Lawrence, New York, just a few hundred feet south of the Canadian border, said Manchester also holds many delights for nature lovers.
“We’re known for our outdoor recreation, and that means the Appalachian Trail, the National Forest and the Battenkill River, which includes fly fishing and tubing and other kinds of watercraft,” said O’Keefe. “Manchester is a unique place. We have a great downtown and we have a lot of hip things you can do just like a large city. But you also don’t have to drive that far to feel like you’re out in the wilderness and escaping civilization.”
Folks can also hike or drive up to the top of Equinox Mountain, at 3,855 feet one of the most majestic summits in Vermont, or the avid reader can stroll into Northshire Books and spend a good hour or two walking through the many nooks and crannies filled with wonderful surprises around every corner. A popular inn called the Colburn House for more than a century, the building was turned into a bookstore in 1976.
As for the fly fishermen, they can not only spend a day in the Battenkill doing what they love butcan also visit the Fly Fishing Museum in Manchester and stop by the large Orvis outlet store. For people who perhaps know little about the sport but want to learn, Orvis also offers a fly fishing school.
There’s more, says O’Keefe.
“We also have the Southern Arts Vermont Center, which displays all kinds of different art, and if you love soccer, we have a professional women’s team that has really caught on with the community,” he said. “We averaged about 800 people a game last summer and I know a lot of people are looking forward to watching the team again this summer.”
For restaurant and lodging options, there’s something for every expense account, large or small, while another really neat thing about Manchester is that on each end is a another small but wonderful community. Just a few miles to the north is Dorset, where the Dorset Marble Quarry is one of the most popular swimming holes in the region. And just a few miles to the south is Arlington, a small, quaint hamlet that was once home to Norman Rockwell.
The Sugar Shack, a small gift shop that specializes in maple syrup, is right on Route 7a and is a must-see for Rockwell lovers. Included in the store is a large room that houses an exhibit of Rockwell’s artwork. They’re not the originals you’re going to see down in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, but they’re very interesting.
“He lived here for 14 years so we have several of his prints, his magazine covers, set up in an exhibit that talks about his time here in Arlington,” said Cheyenne Hawley, manager of the Sugar Shack. “People do come here and sometimes they think we’re the museum in Stockbridge. Well, they’re not too far off. We’re a bit smaller but we have a lot. Some people come in and meander about for 10 minutes. Others will stay for an hour or more looking around.”