"Our goal," said Seth Bongartz, "Is to be a world class cultural heritage site. You don't want to set out to be the second best, you want to be the best."
This attitude has led to a new mission for Hildene: "Values into Action."
"The first thing that we had to do was identify our core values," said Bongartz, "integrity, perseverance, and civic responsibility. Now, we're not looking back and saying, 'What would Lincoln do,' these are our values." The key actions that evolved from those values, he said, were land conservation, historic preservation, sustainability, and civil civic discourse.
Bongartz continued, "Our goal is to bring all 412 acres into the guest experience."
The estate has been focusing in recent years on improving its trail system, and, beginning this year, will focus more on growing their own crops and animals. "The notion of sustainability permeates everything," he said, "We don't do demonstrations. Everything we do on the property is done for a reason. We don't run the sawmill unless there's an authentic need to run the sawmill."
New focus will also be placed on protecting songbirds and pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, which Bongartz called the "canaries in the coal mine" for the health of an ecological system. Earlier in the spring, the estate ran a program at three local schools where Diane Newton, an instructor from Hildene, helped students plant gardens for pollinators. Bongartz also said a 20-acre plot of land will be turned into a dedicated songbird ground-nesting sanctuary, and that pollinator friendly plants will be planted along the edges of the land cleared for animal and crop raising.
Hildene hires 30 year-round and 10 seasonal employees. "We can't afford to be extravagant, but we pay more than most," said Bongartz. He also touted the positive effect Hildene has on the local community.
"Thirty-six thousand people visited Hildene in 2013," he said.
Of that number, which only includes paying guests, not those who visited the estate for weddings or school trips, about 18,000 came to the area specifically to visit the estate.
"That's 18,000 people a year who wouldn't have been here otherwise, who afterwards go eat and shop in Manchester," said Bongartz. He also noted that Hildene had visitors from 27 countries in 2013.
Education has also been a long-standing part of Hildene's programming, said Bongartz, but most of their programs are geared towards elementary schoolers, such as the pollinator gardens, or middle schoolers, such as the Lincoln Essay contest. Starting this year, however, Hildene will begin offering programs for high school students, in subjects ranging from plant and soil science, to botany, to economics, to animal husbandry, to literature.
The estate is planning to renovate one of its barns to serve as a classroom, and is putting up a greenhouse that will be primarily used for education. However, at least in the current year, Hildene will focus more on on-site education than visiting schools. "There will be chapters beyond this one, but this chapter is high school."
Asked when all of these changes would be implemented, Bongartz responded, "There's no such thing as being done. Hildene will be ever-changing."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB