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Hildene: Explore Vermont’s Green Mountain Secret

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Explore the Lincoln family home in Vermont’s gorgeous Green Mountains — one of my favourite sites in all of New England.

In This Vermont Article You Will Discover:

  • The Fascinating History of the Lincoln Family
  • The Inner Thoughts of America’s Most Famous President
  • An Relatively Unknown Tourist Attraction in Vermont

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. — US President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.

I read with interest this speech from America’s most famous president, as it is painted on the walls of Hildene — a historic estate hidden in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

As a Canadian, the American Civil War is foreign literally and figuratively, but at the same time, the history of the US is entwined with the history of Canada. Figures such as Abraham Lincoln, or even Revolutionary War notables like Paul Revere and Benedict Arnold, seem as much a part of our history as theirs. As such, it is truly the inescapable history of the North American continent as a whole.

Here in Vermont, I did not expect such a profound lesson in — history.

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Hildene House: Vermont’s Most Intriguing Attraction

Hildene is a picturesque New England estate house that was once the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln and his descendants — in fact, the Lincoln family summered at Hildene right up until 1975. Today it is a bustling tourist attraction set amongst the serene Green Mountains of Vermont.

Robert and his mother, the infamously insane Mary Todd, purchased the 500-acre property for $30 per acre at the turn of the last century, and took residence in 1905. A couple of years later, the famous gardens were completed, and a couple of years following that, a massive 1,000-pipe organ was installed — an instrument still played for visitors today.

While the Lincoln family summered here until the mid 1970s, by then the estate had fallen to disrepair. It wasn’t until 1978 when the non-profit group Friends of Hildene began to raise money to purchase and restore the estate that it returned to its former glory. Today it is a walk-through museum and wonderful Green Mountain garden grounds, popular for history buffs and wedding parties.

Hildene House

Exhibits at Hildene are displayed as they would have appeared when the Lincolns lived there.

Gorgeous as the grounds and the architecture are — from the flowers, to the observatory, to the ornately displayed living areas, it is the Abraham Lincoln exhibit that captures my imagination.

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” —Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.

 

The Exhibit, officially named “The American Ideal: Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address,” features fascinating historical objects displayed among quotes from his famous Second Inaugural Address.

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Abraham Lincoln’s famous Stovepipe Hat and the mirror where he last saw his own reflection.

Sure, I’d heard of the speech, but I’d never read it. I follow the speech, painted on the walls of the exhibit room, and it fascinates me. The above quote, for example, is rich in karmic theory and, despite seemingly archaic bible references, displays how incredibly forward-thinking Lincoln was. The idea that every drop of blood spilled during slavery would be paid for with the blood of the soldier shows the guilt felt by the north, and how Lincoln seemed to wish for the total destruction of the Old Ways — every penny earned on the back of the slave shall be “sunk.” How wrong they had been to enslave, and how — with war — they must pay with their own lives and property to reverse this atrocity.

Beyond the speech reading, visitors get up close and personal with Abraham Lincoln’s famous Stovepipe Hat, the “Death Mask” placed on his face during his open-casket funeral, a bronze cast of his famous hands and my personal favourite item — a mirror taken from the White House Dressing Room after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. This mirror, it is said, was the last place Lincoln would have seen his own reflection before heading out to Ford’s Theater that fateful night.

It’s a bit macabre, but I can’t help but spend some time staring into the looking glass where Lincoln had last stared.

Further, one will find other Lincoln artifacts, from his wife’s engagement ring to a personal cheque signed by the President — for the princely sum of $5.

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A quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Hildene has also helped shine light on previously misunderstood pieces of Lincoln history:

Robert Todd Lincoln was long vilified following his committal of his mother to the insane asylum in 1875. Ever since his decision to place the beloved Mary Todd Lincoln into permanent care, media and historians had portrayed Robert as an uncaring and ruthless son who abandoned his ailing mother.

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Abraham Lincoln did not live to see Hildene, but he is still an integral part of the exhibits.

However, in recent years, a secret safety deposit box was discovered in Hildene — containing among other things, Robert’s personal correspondence… writings previously unknown. These letters illustrated in no uncertain terms that Robert thought he was doing the right thing by sending his mother to the asylum. Right or wrong in the end — Robert acted as he thought was best for his poor mother and was, in fact, a caring and thoughtful son wrongly judged by history.

And that is just one of the many secrets at Vermont’s most intriguing attraction: Hildene.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

2 comments… add one
  • Zablon Mukuba Dec 14, 2010 Link

    i love history, i will visit this place when am there

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