Lincoln's family legacy needs tending

Volunteers sought to help family homestead educate the curious

Posted
MANCHESTER — Abe Lincoln's legacy is looking for a few good people to help keep his passion for honesty, integrity and service alive in the 21st century.

As the tourist season of 2018 creeps into view, Paula Maynard, volunteer coordinator and press director at Hildene, the mansion that served as the Lincoln family homestead from 1905 to 1975, is in need of more volunteers to help guide and inform the thousands of visitors from around the world that visit every summer and fall.

"Lincoln's values of perseverance, civil discourse and integrity translate well into modern times — values that are good for all generations," Maynard said. "Many of us would do well to learn more about them."

The 400-acre estate, with its Georgian revival mansion and 13 historic buildings, features the home, formal garden and observatory; Welcome Center and The Museum Store in the historic carriage barn; 1903 Pullman car, Sunbeam; and a solar powered goat dairy and cheese-making facility. The lower portion, the Dene, was recently incorporated into the guest experience.

The Dene functions as a campus for environmental and agricultural education for high school students and includes a teaching greenhouse, composting facility, vegetable gardens, apple orchard, and 600-foot floating wetland boardwalk. Nearby, the 1832 schoolhouse, still used for education programs, stands in contrast to the new facilities.

Hildene's educational programs host roughly 3,000 youngsters annually, Maynard noted. Overall visitors year-round number about 52,000. Hildene is open year-round.

All this, with only 32 paid staff and slightly more than 100 volunteers, who pitch in more than 3,000 hours of work yearly.

"We have so many wonderful volunteers," Maynard said. "They are amazing, incredible."

Anne Lourie of Rupert is one of those amazing volunteers. She retired from teaching third graders, and shortly thereafter started volunteering at Hildene in 1996.

Why?

"I'm interested in history, and I didn't want to give up teaching," she said. "It's in my blood. So it just felt right."

She called the experience "rewarding."

"I meet people from all over the country and all over the world," Lourie said. "One thing I was surprised about it how much of an impact President Lincoln had on people around the planet -- Austria, France, the U.K. - and they all know about Abraham Lincoln and want to learn more about his family. So it's great to share the Lincoln story."

She had just wrapped up a visit by about 50 elementary school students, whom she guided through the mansion, explaining the history as they went. She guided them with a calm and expertise that could only come from years in a classroom.

"Kids know so much more, so much earlier now," Lourie noted with a laugh. "When they get here, they already know who Taft and Jefferson are."

Volunteers are asked what sort of schedule they want. They can work severl days every week, or just work on-call, or as combination of both.

Lourie works a set day every week, and is also on call for special parties or events. Summer can get busy, she said, and she often winds up working several days each week. But foliage season is always busy. Bus tours require two docents. Then there are the special events - weddings, company events, etc.

"They keep me busy," Lourie said.

The mansion was built by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son the Abraham and Mary Lincoln. After his father was assassinated in 1865, Robert Todd Lincoln served at Secretary of War for three presidents -- between 1881 and 1885 under Presidents Grover Cleveland, Chester A. Arthur and James Garfield -- served as U.S. Ambassador to England. In the late 1800s, he served as president and chairman of the board of Pullman Palace Rail Car Co., turning the company around and increasing its profits.

Robert Todd Lincoln was 18 when his father was killed. After schooling at Harvard and a law school in Chicago, he opened a successful law practice there. He had a law partner who had a summer home in Manchester, and more than 30 years after visiting the town with his mother at the Equinox Hotel for one day shortly after the assassination, he began purchasing land and decided to build his home there.

Hildene was primarily a summer residence for the family at first, but gradually grew into the primary residence of Abe Lincoln's descendants. Robert Todd Lincoln lived there and in Washington D.C. until his death in 1926. He died at Hildene when he was 82, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert Todd Lincoln's descendants occupied the home until 1975, when his great-granddaughter, Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith, passed away at 76. She had become a significant player in the local farming community, operating Hildene as a large dairy farm. After she died, the property was willed to the Church of Christ Scientist, with the understanding they would preserve the property as a homage to Abraham Lincoln's legacy.

But the church hadn't the resources to maintain the structures and grounds. They had planned to sell the property to developers, but a group of locals formed the Friends of Hildene as a volunteer group dedicated to purchasing and restoring the Lincoln family home. After three years in court, they won the right to purchase Hildene, and in 1978 launched the decades-long effort to restore it majesty.

Today, as in 1978, Hildene depends on its corps of volunteers for a raft of tasks that keep the operation running.

Opportunities for volunteers include van driver, house greeter, docents (for the house, the Pullman car, the garden, and farm), store stocker, barn maintenance, goat pen raking, office support, poster distribution and musicians to play period music from 1912.

Other volunteers will staff weddings and holiday parties, Maynard said. They even have volunteers dedicated to keeping fresh flower arrangements updated in the mansion.

Meanwhile, about a half mile down the drive from the main house, is the goat dairy barn. This time of year, volunteer Frank Kropa, 75, is tasked with riding herd on about 20 baby goats. Last week, all those kids were feisty and curious, hopping and running around and flocking to any visitor lucky enough to stop in.

Kropa said he came to Manchester in 1975, when the effort to reclaim Hildene began, and has watched the process ever since. He started volunteering about a month ago.

"I had a little time so I thought this would be a great place to volunteer." Kropa nodded to the constantly moving pack of baby goats in the corral. "It's a fun place to be around. They're just fun - so curious, so cute."

The goat barn, he said, is especially popular to families with children.

"They always make sure they come down here."

Interested in volunteering? Call Paula Maynard, Volunteer Coordinator at 802-367-7961, email to paula@hildene.org, or stop in at the Welcome Center to pick up a volunteer registration form. Hildene is at 1005 Hildene Road in Manchester, Vermont.

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