MANCHESTER -- In the Gilded Age, while wealthy New Yorkers were building their country cottages in Lenox, Chicagoans were doing the same in Manchester. Robert Todd Lincoln's Hildene is one of the town's best-known sites. Just across the way sits the Wilburton Inn, originally Hildene's sister mansion owned by Lincoln's friend Albert Gilbert, built in 1902.
When Gilbert lost his fortune, his banker, James Wilbur, took posession of the mansion and renamed it Wilburton Hall.
The Hall became an Inn in 1945 -- "an exclusive resort for sporting gentlemen who skied, golfed and wagered. The tone was clubby and formal with tuxedos and fur raps at dinner," its website explains -- but today, while the setting is no less majestic, the dress code has become informal.
"It's a playful atmosphere in a fabulous mansion," said innkeeper Melissa Levis.
And each Wednesday all summer the inn hosts Farm Night, a meal grown and cooked by the proprieters of the nearby Earth Sky Time Farm, members of the family that owns the inn.
The Levis family bought the Inn in 1987.
"My family loves children and has a dog and is very welcoming," Levis said. "We have a lot of diversity of our guests; we're not so WASPy anymore."
Farm Night began with Georgette Levis, the original inkeeper and Melissa Levis's mother, who passed away recently, and Oliver Levis, Georgette's son, who now runs Earth Sky Time Farm with his wife, Bonnie, on the grounds of Oliver and Melissa's childhood home.
"One fine day, I had a lawn, and I woke up in the morning it was gone and it became a field. Oliver is farming all over the place," said Georgette Levis in a video on the Inn's website.
Earth Sky Time Farm, an organic farm, grows tomatoes, garlic and other crops, bakes bread and makes "VT Goldburgers," veggie burgers sold in markets and co-ops across the region. The farm has a CSA program and employs Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a form of intern, to work the farm.
"It has the spirit of a kibbutz," Melissa Levis said.
Farm Night is completely kosher and vegetarian, with an ever-changing menu cooked by Oliver and Bonnie.
"This week was Indian. The week before was Italian. Maybe the week before that was Mediterranean," said Melissa Levis. "It's not just heirloom tomatoes and basil."
Since their mother passed away, the whole second Levis generation has returned home to run the Inn and Farm Night, Melissa Levis said.
"On Wednesday nights it's really magical," she said. "I always play my guitar, and we sing songs. We have a Wilburton family singalong. My brother makes creates these fabulous cocktails and we have beautiful Vermont craft beers."
She performs as a children's rock and roll musician, while her sister, Tajlei, is a lawyer and musical theater playwright who coordinates the inn's cultural events, like the Outdoor Movie Series which ends with Chevy Chase as a gentleman farmer in Vermont in "Funny Farm" this Sunday. Max, who makes the cocktails, teaches psychology at Boston University and Harvard.
At the dinner, Oliver talks to diners about the night's menu.
"He talks about the different recipes each week and how they came up with them," Levis said. "It's nice to know your farmer. People come as strangers and leave as family and friends."
Because the dinner is set up at huge tables, people end up sitting next to strangers.
"[They] make new friends at farm night," Levis said.
Many of the guests at the inn come up for a couple of days from Albany or other places within a few hours' drive, and many base the trip around attending Farm Night, Levis said.
She sends them to fellow turn-of-the-century mansions, Hildene with its model farm and the Southern Vermont Arts Center in nearby Dorset. She also recommends driving up Mount Equinox. The inn provides discounted tickets to a number of nearby cultural institutions, like the Dorset and Weston Theatre Festivals.
Levis is also very passionate about the Inn's breakfast which unlike Farm Night goes on all year. Unlike Oliver Levis, Lisa Richards, the breakfast chef, cooks with meat, like grass-fed beef, Melissa Levis said.
"She used to work at Green Mountain Flour ... so our pancakes in the morning are real. It's wholesome eating whether it's dinner or breakfast," said Levis.
Green Mountain Flour is a stone flour mill in Windsor, Vt., that uses local grain.
Levis wants to make food a central part of what brings people to the inn, calling it "foodie travel."
"We'd like to do cooking workshops and the like in the off-season," Levis said. "Guests chefs could do week-long residencies. Oliver isn't interested in becoming Ben and Jerry, but people always want them to write a cookbook."
If you go ...
What: Farm Night dinners
Where: Wilburton Inn, 257 Wilburton Drive, Manchester
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3
Cost: Set menu for $20, and they frequently sell out, so it's best to make a reservation. They give a ticket away weekly on Facebook.