By Jennifer Huberdeau
During the summer of 1864, Robert Todd Lincoln, then 20, accompanied his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, and his younger brother, Tad, on a trip to Manchester, Vt., and stayed at the Equinox Hotel. It is told that during this trip, he fell in love with the rolling green hills surrounding him.
We can’t be certain that it was on this particular visit that Manchester won the heart of President Abraham Lincoln’s eldest and only surviving son. The trio is said to have made a similar trip the previous summer (some scholars dispute this) and had previously stayed at the Bardwell House in Rutland in 1861.
It would be some time before Lincoln returned to the village — nearly 40 years — staying first as a guest of his Chicago law partner, Edward Isham, and then buying 412 acres to build his Georgian Revival summer estate, Hildene.
Isham, a native of Manchester, attended Burr and Burton Academy before attending Harvard Law School. A partner of Isham, Lincoln and Beal in Chicago, he purchased his own summer home in Manchester in the late 1800s, which he named Ormsby Hill. It was here that Isham entertained Lincoln and their good friend, President William Howard Taft.
It is reported that when Lincoln asked his law partner to sell him some of his land in Manchester, Isham replied, “You’re my best friend and law partner; you’re not going to be my next-door neighbor.”
Regardless if there is any truth behind the tale of law partners’ conversation, it wasn’t until after Isham’s death that Lincoln bought the 412-acre property behind Ormsby Hill.
After purchasing the land in 1902, Lincoln began plans for the 24-room summer home he would name Hildene. The house, completed in 1905, included a private observatory. He and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, would entertain here and he would run the Pullman Co., which he became president of in 1897 and chairman of the board in 1911, from his first-floor office while in town.
Although only intended as a summer home, the estate would become a part-time residence for the former U.S. secretary of war and ambassador to the United Kingdom. Eventually, he would come to call it his ancestral home. He died at Hildene, at the age of 82, in 1926.
Following the death of Mary Harlan Lincoln in 1937, the home passed to her granddaughter, Mary “Peggy” Lincoln Beckwith. Peggy, who lived there until her death in 1975, was often joined at the estate in the summers by her mother, Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith.
Upon Peggy’s death, Hildene passed to the Church of Christ, Scientist, as was stipulated in her grandmother’s will, which also included the requirement that the church maintain the estate as a memorial to the Lincoln family.
Unfortunately, the church was not in the position to maintain the estate and put forth plans to sell it. Learning of that, a group of friends and neighbors of the Lincolns fought the sale in court over the course of the next three years. In 1978, the group, now known as Friends of Hildene, raised the money to buy the property and set about restoring the house, gardens and estate.
Today, Hildene continues to celebrate the Lincoln family, with tours of the house, complete with original furniture and a historic exhibit which includes one of Abraham Lincoln’s three existing stovepipe hats and his oval dressing mirror from the White House, along with other family heirlooms. A 1903 Pullman Sunbeam railroad car is also available for tours, as well as small working farm and 12 miles of hiking and walking trails.
Scroll down for a closer look at a few of the items you’ll see at Hildene.
Jennifer Huberdeau is New England Newspapers’ online editor and associate editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column, “The Cottager,” for Berkshires Week and The Shires of Vermont.