Museum's season is in full bloom

Visitors to Hildene enjoy artifacts, history and more than 1,000 peonies


MANCHESTER — The formal garden of Hildene, the 412-acre estate which three generations of President Abraham Lincoln's descendants called home for 70 years, is also the last stop on the self-guided tour that thousands of visitors enjoy yearly.

Jessie Harlan Lincoln, President Lincoln's granddaughter, designed the formal garden as a gift to her mother in 1907. It's an American version of the European parterre, a level garden in which the beds are arranged in symmetrical patterns, separated and connected by paths. The Hildene parterre is designed to resemble a stained glass window, with the privets the lead, and the flowers the decorative glass.

That's never more true than the "Celebration of Peonies," from late May through mid June, when the garden displays more than 1,000 peony blooms. Most were originally purchased in Paris more than a century ago.

It's one among many highlights on the tour — a space both stately and inviting, framing the path to the door of the handsome mansion beyond while enlivening the landscape in rich greenery and bright color. Beyond, the Green Mountains draw the eye ever higher.

Perhaps that's fitting, considering Hildene's efforts to keep Abraham Lincoln's core values at the center of the museum's mission.

Hildene's outgoing president, Seth Bongartz, loves to speak to this, often while discussing one of the mansion's permanent exhibits: "The American Ideal: Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural."

"This exhibit is not about artifacts: It is about the meaning and the power of Lincoln's second inaugural address, the greatest presidential speech ever given," Bongartz said. "When President Lincoln's words are properly understood they provide the intellectual and moral underpinnings for everything this country should stand for."

A family legacy

Hildene is the legacy of Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and the only one of their four children to reach adulthood.

A Harvard graduate, Robert went on to serve as Secretary of War in the Garfield and Arthur administrations. He was also U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1889-93, and counsel, president and chairman of the Pullman Palace Car Company, which he served until his death in 1926.

Walking the grounds of Hildene in late spring, one can almost sense what it must have been like for Robert to choose this place.

Robert's first visit to Manchester was as a young man in the summer of 1864, when he came to the Equinox Hotel with his mother and brother Tad. The surroundings must have made an impression. Forty years after his first visit, Lincoln returned to Manchester, purchased nearly 400 acres of land and built the estate and its Georgian Revival mansion — all of which remains intact.

When Peggy Beckwith, the last Lincoln descendant to live at Hildene, died in 1975, she honored her grandmother's wish and left the estate to the First Church of Christ, Scientist. But the church realized it was not in position to maintain Hildene as a Lincoln family memorial, and sold the property in 1978 — not to developers, as initially planned, but to the non-profit Friends of Hildene.

More than a museum

As a destination for those interested in history, Hildene was always a nice surprise in those early days of the Friends' ownership.

That charm remains, but the museum now looks ahead to a multifaceted mission, which began over the past decade, and is set to continue with incoming president Brian Keefe when Bongartz retires at year's end. That mission now echoes with every staff member and visitor: "Values into Action."

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It's not just a cliche; that sense of purpose validates the notion that Hildene is more than a museum. The natural resources and geographic diversity of the estate that belonged to President Lincoln's eldest son has made so much possible. Exhibits, heirloom gardens, beekeeping, 12 miles of hiking trails for nature discovery, and an agricultural center with a cheese-making facility, as well as wetlands for birdwatching and nature appreciation, all define Hildene.

The ultimate goal of "Values into Action," Bongartz points out, is giving this important Lincoln historic site a contemporary consciousness of which the 16th president would be proud: integrity, perseverance and civic responsibility. Its elements are found throughout Hildene's 412 acres: land conservation, historic preservation, sustainability, civil civic discourse.

Politics, programs and peonies

Within that context, Hildene is a veritable potpourri of facilities and programs, each one with a distinct identity, making it a year-round destination. On any given day, you can see Vice President Laine Dunham on the grounds consulting with Programming Director Stephanie Moffett-Hynds on the latest development of teaching "Values into Action."

"It's not enough to just say something about living our values," Dunham said. "We must open our doors and offer the public diverse opportunities to see how it can be done, and why it's so vital to the 21st century."

Indeed, Moffett-Hynds works on year-round programming, from scholarly lectures, to local public school forays, to goat-petting sessions for young children. At Hildene, Dunham said with a smile, "the spectrum is all-encompassing."

Somewhere not far off, Press Director Paula Maynard welcomes a tour group, not missing a chance to render a smiling hello to others. This genuine greeting can be found at Hildene right down to the last groundskeeper.

The carriage barn, built circa 1905, has had its 100-year-old wood restored to original condition. The Museum Store and Welcome Center include interactive displays such as a telegraph, an observation beehive, and a model Pullman train circling the perimeter at ceiling level.

The genuine item, a meticulously refurbished 1903 Pullman rail car, "Sunbeam" is also on the grounds, and is one of Hildene's greatest family attractions. Younger children are fascinated that it's here; older children, along with their parents, take in its interpretive displays, which include the story of African-American railway porters and their vital presence on these symbols of American industrial growth.

Cows, goats and cheese

Both Robert Todd Lincoln, a gentleman farmer, and his granddaughter, Peggy, a hands-on farmer, valued Hildene's agricultural potential. Each raised a dairy herd and chickens that produced the eggs, milk and butter that were used on the estate and shared with friends. This established a precedent for Hildene's Rowland Agricultural Center, and Dene Farm in the meadows, whose harvests today follow sustainable methods, by supplying events held on the estate. It's also a classroom where Burr and Burton Academy students are learning sustainable agriculture and growing the greens students eat at lunch, all year long.

The center is the family's legacy to green practices necessary for the 21st century. The 40-foot-by-100-foot post and beam barn was built with timber felled and milled on the estate. It uses renewable energy from solar panels and wood fuel. This power, coupled with a heating system fueled by cord wood from the property, provides a unique opportunity to both teach the importance of clean renewable energy, a closed loop forest management plan, and the value of sustainable small scale farming.

Here, one can find Hildene's herd of Nubian goats, complete with public viewing of cheese making from milking to processing, pasteurization, aging and packaging of Hildene Farm artisanal cheeses. This is a working farm, and everything from its precipice to its lowlands, from its practices of encouraging an environment for pollinators to its 600-foot floating boardwalk in the lower wetlands, is aimed toward what Bongartz emphatically calls "doing the right thing."

"We want our guests to leave with the sense that they have, if only for several hours, been a part of something very special," Bongartz said. "We want them to leave with the sense that Hildene is an example of what is right with the world and to feel at least a little bit more empowered to become constructively engaged."

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias

at or on Twitter @TellyHalkias


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