In the spring of 1907, her heart broken by a painful divorce, Jessie Lincoln, the 31-year-old granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln, got down on her knees, put her hands in the dirt and planted a garden of luscious pink peonies.
“When Jessie Lincoln put in her garden, she knew exactly what she wanted. Jessie loved peonies,” says Paula Maynard, press director at Hildene, the Lincoln family’s home in Manchester, Vt.
Jessie’s design for the formal garden behind her parents’ Georgian Revival mansion — low hedges framing squares of billowy blossoms — was inspired by her tours of Europe and the stained-glass windows she admired in grand cathedrals.
‘Celebration of Peonies’
WHERE: Hildene, 1005 Hildene Road, Manchester, Vt.
WHEN: Through mid-June. The house, exhibits and grounds are open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
HOW MUCH: $13 adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 14 for house, exhibits and grounds; $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 6 to 14 for grounds and walking pass only
MORE INFO: 800-578-1788
“The privets are like the lead and the peonies are the color, the glass,” says Maynard.
Because the formal garden was a gift to her mother, Mrs. Mary Harlan Lincoln, Jessie wanted the flowers to be visible from her mother’s sitting room on the second floor.
“Mrs. Lincoln was a fanatic about pink,” says Cindy Lewis, Hildene’s master gardener. “And there were specific varieties for that window.”
Lincolns in Vermont
Today, more than 1,000 fragrant, frothy peonies, most of them planted more than 100 years ago by Jessie Lincoln, bloom from mid-May through mid-June, in a floral extravaganza that Hildene calls its “Celebration of Peonies.”
“People come just for the peonies. The scent is mind-boggling,” says Maynard.
“This is the living history of the Lincolns,” says Lewis.
The history of the Lincolns in Vermont begins with Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons who lived to be an adult. Robert discovered the Green Mountain state as a young man when his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, brought her children to Manchester’s Hotel Equinox in 1864 as a respite from the Civil War. She enjoyed her summer visit so much that she made reservations to visit the following year with her husband the president, and a special hotel suite was built.
“He never got to Vermont,” says Maynard. “He was assassinated.”
Robert, who became a lawyer, U.S. secretary of war and president of the Pullman Palace Car Co., built Hildene in 1905 as his summer home. Surrounded by a panoramic view of the Taconic and Green Mountains, the estate is hidden at the end of a long, unpaved road off Route 7A, a few miles south of Manchester Center.
For more than three years, Lewis and a crew of volunteers have researched the history of the Hoyt Formal Garden, uncovering Lincoln family documents and consulting peony growers and hybridizers from Vermont, Canada and France.
In 2009, the American Peony Society registered the “Jessie Lincoln,” a pale pink peony from the Lincoln garden that’s as flirty and fluffy as a ballerina’s tutu, as a new cultivar: a plant selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation. Last year, the society accepted a second peony, “Hildene,” which has 10 broad white petals flashed with pink.
The French were the first to bring peonies from their native China, and by the late 1800s, they had spread through Europe.
“Jessie saw them while she was in England. They were very fashionable,” Lewis says.
When Jessie returned to America, she ordered peony roots that were shipped from Paris.
“We found the order forms. We do have her planting plan,” Lewis says. “The Lincolns were a tad bit ahead of the country in bringing them.”
In this country, it was J.P. Saunders, a professor and dean at Hamilton College in Clinton, Oneida County, who became a renowned peony hybridizer and popularized the plants that Victorians described as “like roses, but without thorns and having flowers twice the size.”
When train cars became refrigerated, peony roots were transported to other parts of the country.
As Victorian gardens go, Jessie’s half-acre design is not that large, says Lewis.
“The thing that makes it so unusual is the privets, the partitioning of the garden. It’s an immense amount of labor.”
Lewis knows which are the oldest peonies, the ones planted by Jessie’s own hands, and has identified more than two dozen varieties of herbaceous peonies.
After Jessie’s death in 1948, the garden was unattended for nearly 30 years, and some of the plants went to seed and self-hybridized, making them difficult to identify.
“I’ll probably never know the names of all of them. They will be a mystery,” says Lewis.
In 2009, a propagation garden was started with the goal of eventually producing a new generation of peonies that could be sold to Hildene visitors. Peony seeds from the garden are sold now in the Hildene Welcome Center.
On its 412 acres of lawn, pasture and woodland, Hildene also has other gardens.
In the cutting garden, which is close to the house, volunteers grow the flowers that are arranged in vases throughout the mansion.
“The cutting garden is where the Lincoln family spent recreational time,” says Maynard.
In its vegetable garden, Hildene grows hundreds of pounds of food for local food pantries.
There’s also a butterfly garden and a “fruit cage,” a screened-in garden where visitors can sample blueberries, strawberries and cherries.
About a mile from the mansion, visitors can watch the milking of Hildene’s Nubian goats and learn about how the solar-powered barn saves energy. Milk from the goats is used to make Hildene cheese, from chevre to goat gouda, that is served in local restaurants.
The 24-room mansion, decorated in early 20th century style, contains many of the Lincoln family's original furnishings and personal belongings, including the bed that President Taft slept in, a tall black hat once worn by Abraham Lincoln, and an aviator’s jacket worn by Mary Lincoln “Peggy” Beckwith, the president’s great grandaughter, who died in 1975 and was the last Lincoln to live in the home.
But for peony lovers, it’s Mary Harlan Lincoln’s sitting room that makes hearts skip a beat.
Between a pair of rose-colored settees, a tea pot and tea cup rest on a low table, as if Mrs. Lincoln has just left the room. And when it’s late May or early June, from those elegant sofas, you can see exactly what Mrs. Lincoln looked upon from her window: a sea of pink peonies set in corrals of green, with the Vermont mountains rising behind them.
“This is the view to die for,” says Maynard.