MANCHESTER -- Historic mansions often make fine museums, but Hildene, the Lincoln family home, is evolving into a working farm and estate fostering 21st-century environmental stewardship and sustainability.
Seth Bongartz, Hildene's president, said the work to support this transformation is about to yield a series of new benefits for visitors.
"After years of discussion and planning we will, on June 1, begin incorporating Hildene Meadows and the adjacent Batten Kill wetlands into the daily guest experience," Bongartz said. "This is a gorgeous, interesting and ecologically diverse part of the property. It is also a financial imperative. We need to put every bit of our 412 acres to work advancing our mission and contributing income to the restoration and maintenance of our extensive infrastructure."
Hildene Meadows, a sprawling grassy area long used for large-scale public events, has in the past few years been closed to prepare for a transition to agriculture.
Laine Dunham, Hildene's vice president, said a decade of work on the upper parts of the property will give way to initiatives on the lower half.
"We must become more sustainable, and the meadows are part of that," Dunham said. "Plans include a new greenhouse, vegetable gardens, flower crops and a composting facility."
Hildene already composts goat waste from its cheese production and plans to add garden, farm and food waste to the mix. The resulting compost will fertilize Hildene's crops.
Last year, Hildene completed a footpath along the Batten Kill wetlands and a 600-foot-long floating boardwalk.
Lincoln family estate
Long famous for its mansion, Hildene clearly is a historic site. But its natural resources and geographic diversity have made possible interpretive ecology exhibits, heirloom gardens, beekeeping, trails for nature discovery, and an agricultural center with a cheese-making facility.
The Rowland Agricultural Center uses sustainable practices of the 21st century. The 40-foot-by-100-foot post-and-beam barn was built with white pine felled and milled on the estate. It uses renewable energy from solar panels.
The building houses Hildene's herd of Nubian goats. It also allows public viewing of cheese making, from milking to processing, pasteurization, aging and packaging of Hildene Farm artisanal cheeses.
Woodlands and songbirds
Hildene's overall land stewardship is reflective of its first-ever comprehensive land management plan, completed in 2006. Its emphasis is on the entire forest ecosystem.
Alan Calfee, president of Calfee Woodland Management and Hildene's consulting forester, said the efforts on the estate since 2005 have been "commendable and courageous."
"Any time you are dealing with an organization that has to make strategic decisions on its future, finances are affected," Calfee said. "As a result, land stewardship is one of the first things to be cut in favor of commercialism. Much to its credit Hildene has resisted that temptation."
Steve Hagenbuch, a conservation biologist with Audubon Vermont, said his organization's Forest Bird Initiative is working
to ensure that high-quality nesting habitats exist for 40 bird species that breed in northern New England, but are considered at risk.
"One of the main strategies for achieving our conservation objectives is to work directly with the people who steward the forest resource primarily the private landowner," Hagenbuch said.
Last year, Hagenbuch conducted Hildene's first forest bird habitat assessment. He was able to characterize nesting habitats for bird species representative of local forests. Then he developed recommendations on bird habitats to be incorporated into Hildene's forest management.
The final piece of the natural overlay integrated into Hildene's transformation is creating and sustaining a pollinator-friendly habitat.
Having eliminated pesticides from its lawns and gardens, Hildene has made other adjustments to its farming and forest, putting the lands on the cusp of becoming a wildlife sanctuary focused on bees, butterflies and songbirds.
Diane Newton, Hildene's education director, said three-quarters of all plants rely on pollinators such as butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, birds and bats. But she said many of these pollinators are now threatened, so education is paramount.
"Our pollinator education focuses mostly on groups from elementary schools," Newton said. "It's so important to reach them at a young age and inculcate this crucial need for our ecosystem."
Dunham said the estate's mission and its role as a museum are enhanced by its ongoing environmental planning and development.
"When we say ‘values into action,' we aren't just parroting a slogan," she said. "Moving forward on all these initiatives is what will make Hildene thrive in the new century."
If you go ...
What: Hildene historic home, farm, Pullman car and 8 miles of hiking trails
Where: 1005 Hildene Road, just off Route 7A in Manchester
When: The Lincoln Family Home at Hildene is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily
Admission: $18 for adults, $5 for youth, free for children under 6
Information: hildene.org or (802) 367-1788