From field to farm, with a boardwalk

MANCHESTER - A long term initiative several years in the planning is about to become more visible at Hildene, the former home of Robert Todd Lincoln and a major attraction for area visitors.

About 90 acres of meadowland bordered by River Road and a wetlands area along the Batten Kill will become a working farm for growing vegetables and flowers. Cattle, sheep, goats and perhaps other animals will also graze there on the northern side of the field.

Currently it is an open field and has been used in the past as a site for numerous events, such as car shows, craft fairs, lacrosse games, and the Race for the Cure. But starting next year, that area, along with a portion on the southern end of the large open meadow, will become a site for sustainable agriculture, in part to enhance the experience of visitors to Hildene, and in part to enable the estate to produce more of its own needs internally, said Seth Bongartz, Hildene's executive director.

"What the guests will see across the property will be a true working landscape," he said. "Nothing (will be) for show or demonstration. What we're trying to do is have the entire mindset about Hildene be thought of as a place where you can come and spend the day outside with a lot of things to experience."

In addition, a further 80 acres of wetland which lies between the meadow and the Batten Kill will also be opened up for greater access via a 600 foot-long wooden boardwalk and trail network that will allow visitors to walk right out into the wetland area for a close up look.

The boardwalk is already largely complete, although a few things remain left to finish off, Bongartz said. It is designed to float over the water level, which can change dramatically depending on the season. Plans call for it to be open by the spring of 2014.

The purpose is to allow people to view the workings of the wetlands up close, or maybe enjoy a place for solitude and reflection, he said.

Converting the meadow into a working farming landscape, and giving visitors better access to a previously hard-to-reach wetland area are part of an ongoing larger design for Hildene. Bongartz and its board of directors visualize the sprawling 412-acre estate as an educational laboratory and an opportunity to expand its operations beyond the house where Lincoln and his family vacationed during the summer months back in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Animals grazed on the meadowland when Lincoln and his family lived here, according to Hildene's Web site.

In recent years, an agricultural center, walking trails, which also see use in the winter months for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, a Visitor's Center and a Pullman passenger train coach have been added as attractions to the estate. Maple sugaring and forestry management are also part of the uses to which the property has been put to.

Last year Hildene attracted more than 32,000 visitors and is on course to see that number jump by 25 percent this year, to more than 40,000. Many are drawn here specifically to visit the estate, Bongartz said; others stop by during the course of their visit to Manchester. Either way, the estate is a major tourist draw, and expanding the range of things to do and lengthening their stay will be a plus for both the estate and the community, Bongartz said.

The main house will remain a key component of the array of things to do, Bongartz said.

"This entire place was the Lincoln home, and we want to think about it as a unified whole," he said.

A walkway will be built around the edge of the present meadow where the farm will be cultivated and livestock will graze. In addition to the educational aspects, the farm is expected to help supply Hildene's catering needs for weddings and other events. There will be a significant composting operation as well.

The final line up of vegetables and flowers they expect to cultivate hasn't been fully determined yet, and will depend to a large degree on what the two caterers used by Hildene for its weddings and special events feel they need, he said.

The vegetables and flowers will be grown at the southern end of the field where the elevation of the land drops off and yields rich, fertile bottom soil. The upper level of the field, and more visible from River Road, will be used for grazing pasture, Bongartz said.

Trying to set aside part of the meadow for possible use for the craft fair and other events that have taken place there were in the end decided to be incompatible with the primary use of the land for agriculture. It would not fit the "mindset" that they want visitors to enter in to when visiting the estate, and the farm, when their tour took them down that way, But a concerted effort was also made to ensure that other local venues were in place to allow those events to continue locally, Bongartz said.

"We have worked really hard and made a lot of effort to move everything to other venues where they make perfect sense - whether it's the chamber car show or the craft fair to Hunter Park," he said. "What our goal has been is to have the community and other institutions within the community be better off because if Hildene can be as successful as it is capable of and Hunter Park can be as successful as it can be - that's something like a perfect outcome."

Meanwhile, Hildene hopes to leverage its assets to provide educational experiences to its guest that would be hard to find in one place elsewhere. The hope is that visitors will have "takeaways" from their visits that they can apply to their own lives, he said, from farming to woodlot management.

"By next summer, we will be encouraging people to go down there and use the meadows, and each year have more and more agricultural uses in place," Bongartz said. "The meadows present an amazing opportunity for agriculture but it's all in the context of sustainability, education and advancing (Hildene's) mission."


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