In 1863 during the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln and two of her sons came to Manchester, Vt., to enjoy the cool breezes of the Green Mountains. The president stayed behind in Washington with his hands full.
In Vermont, Mary Lincoln and the boys escaped the unhealthy heat and potential danger of the nation’s capital, and the first lady enjoyed rubbing elbows with the social elite and indulged her love of shopping. The Lincolns stayed at the resplendent Equinox Hotel, which continues operation even today having now provided those same sorts of pleasures to many others for more than 200 years.
Young Robert Todd Lincoln fell in love with Manchester on this trip. Forty years later Robert returned to Manchester as the wealthy CEO of the Pullman Railroad Car Co., then the largest manufacturing company in the United States. There, in 1905, he built a magnificent summer estate called Hildene.
Hildene, meaning hill and valley, is aptly named. The mansion sits not far from Mount Equinox, on a hilltop with a grand visual sweep of the Battenkill River valley.
On a visit to Vermont for skiing, we felt the need to take a closer look at the state. We were beckoned by green hills, little villages filled with white homes, steepled churches and luxurious old resorts where downhill skiing was not the attraction. The village of Manchester and the Hildene estate became the centerpiece of our journey.
On Route 7A, just south of Manchester, there is a modest sign that indicates “Hildene.” A gravel road leads a quarter of a mile through trees and pastures into the 500-acre estate. The large tan stucco Georgian Revival home appears on a rise ahead. It is broad, 17 windows wide, two stories high and only two or three windows in width. This long narrow design facilitates natural air conditioning by simply opening windows and letting breezes have their way. The long, U-shaped drive loops under a white-pillared porch at the front door. There you can imagine Abraham Lincoln’s granddaughter Jessie pulling up in that fire-engine red 1928 Franklin convertible of hers, which is on display in the carriage house.
Jessie Lincoln designed the large formal garden on the far side of the house as a gift to her mother, Mary Harlan Lincoln. It is in the form of a leaded-glass window with hedge representing the lead and a massive display of vary-colored peonies representing the stained-glass panels.
Jessie’s son Robert loved boats and served in the Coast Guard in WWII. Although he had a law degree he never worked as an attorney. He liked to describe himself as a “gentleman farmer of independent means.”
Jessie’s daughter Mary, better known as Peggy, was the last of the Lincolns to live at Hildene. She remained single all her life. She was a photographer, painter, golfer and skier and flew her own airplane from the meadow beyond the garden at the back of the house. She died in 1975, leaving Hildene to the Christian Science Church, from whom it was purchased by the group of volunteers that now run it as a remarkable footnote to the life of Abraham Lincoln.
The setting of the main house is breathtaking with its views of mountains and fields. The surrounding acres are used for hiking and skiing, and a herd of goats rotates through its pastures. On a high spot in the front yard there is an astronomical observatory that is still in use.
The interior is worth careful inspection. The furnishings are primarily those left by the Lincoln family. On either side of the stairway landing opposite the entrance are pipes of the thousand-pipe organ that Robert gave his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln in 1908. It has a still-working player attachment with 242 rolls.
Between the two banks of pipes stands a screen with small paintings of classic stories. Robert’s children would go to the screen and pick out an intriguing picture and he would tell them the tale that went with it.
The elegant parlor contains a Steinway baby grand piano, another gift of Robert’s to his wife, Mary. The library, fittingly, is furnished in the style of the most elaborate of the Pullman Railroad cars. A small office at the far end of the right wing served Robert for running the Pullman Co. in the six or seven months of the year that he spent here away from his Chicago headquarters. He and Mary shared a suite at the head of the stairs for just a few years, then he moved to a bedroom on the first floor with a private entrance.
A small vestibule to that entrance contained a closet within which Robert kept a heavy steel safe. This was the most fascinating room of the house because in that safe in the early 1980s were discovered Robert Todd Lincoln’s collection of personal papers on his mother Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity trial.
Robert was a very private man. Up until this discovery the only information about the trial was word of mouth and bare court papers. Robert’s grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith decided just before his death in 1985 to make these papers public.
In their book, “The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd,” Lincoln historians Mark Neely and Gerald McMurtry tell the story of the soul-searing struggle between Mary Lincoln and her son Robert Todd Lincoln, a story, up until then, shrouded in secrecy and scandal. In brief, Mary was a troubled and difficult lady even before being subjected to some of the severest stresses imaginable. The job of the United States’ president’s wife is hard enough, but she lost three of her children to illness and then her husband to assassination.
Compulsive shopping threatened to bankrupt her. In the depth of her illness she was anxious, sad, withdrawn and deluded with the belief that her son Robert was dying. She attempted suicide, tried to hire someone to kill Robert and started carrying a pistol. Her much-criticized insanity trials were fair by the laws of the day, yet she probably should not have been deprived of her liberty for an entire year. Neely and McMurtry’s book is on sale in the museum shop.
If you go
Most of us will find comfortable and moderately priced accommodations among the nine excellent motels nearby. Manchester Designer Outlet’s has 32 discount stores, the view and the air are free, and there is hiking, biking, fishing and skiing for all.
But if price is no object, stay at the elegant Equinox Resort. Its long, white-columned porch dominates the center of Manchester. The hotel began 200 years ago as a one-story tavern and since then has been constantly added onto and renovated. One of the hotel’s components is an 1811 home once owned by Lincoln’s granddaughter Mary Lincoln Isham.
At the fabulous Equinox Resort, lessons are available in, among other things, falconry, fly fishing and the driving of Land Rovers. Expensive shopping is also close at hand.