Location: Woodstock, Vermont
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site spans four generations and nearly 200 years of the rise of conservation in America. Born in 1801 in Woodstock, Vermont, George Perkins Marsh grew up and his family participated in the massive clear-cuts of the virgin Vermont forests. The forests were cleared during the winter for the production of firewood, charcoal, potash, and lumber with many of the acres becoming sheep farms. During the early 1800s Woodstock became a major center for the production of wool. This mass removal of the trees ultimately caused massive erosion of the topsoil, major floods, and the elimination of the fish in most of the rivers. George Marsh observed all of this as a child growing up in Woodstock and took these experiences with him in later life. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1820 with high honors and studied and practiced law in Burlington, Vermont. He served in the US Congress from 1843 to 1849 when he was appointed by President Zachary Taylor the US Minister to the Ottoman Empire. While not his chosen location, he took advantage of this appointment to extensively travel in Turkey observing the effects of centuries of farming in the same location and the impact it had on the land. After returning to Vermont in 1854 he was appointed by the Governor to make a report on the artificial propagation of fish to restock the rivers devastated over the years. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to be the first US Minister to the newly formed Kingdom of Italy where he was again traveled extensively noting the impacts of centuries of man activities on the environment. While in Italy he published “Man and Nature” in 1864 where he argued that deforestation could lead to desertification, describing the impacts of clearing the once-lush lands around the Mediterranean leading to a landscape “as desolate as the moon.” He never returned to his home in Vermont, dying in Rome in 1862 after serving for 21 years. His estate had already been sold to Frederick Billings in 1869. After growing up in Vermont and graduating from the University of Vermont in 1844. As a young man, he made the journey across Panama with his sister and brother-in-law to join in the California gold rush in 1848. Along with three partners he became the first land claims lawyer in San Francisco. He made his fortune in California as a lawyer and trustee of the College of California, which became UC Berkley. While in California he traveled with other noted naturalists in documenting, photographing, and leading in the protection of the natural wonders of California including Yosemite. In 1864 he returned to Vermont and in 1869 moved onto the estate of George Marsh. Being familiar with Marsh’s work in Man and Nature and having a desire to assist in the revitalization of rural Vermont, he set about putting in practice those ideals envisioned by Marsh. He brought in prize Jersey cows to create a model dairy farm, put in practice modern agricultural techniques to provide sustainable harvests, and began the replanting of Mount Tom on the property. In the lower elevations, the forests were allowed to naturally regenerate along with trial plantings of native species of maple, birch, beech, and oak. On the slopes he planted conifers, however since the only nurseries were in Europe at the time, he imported Norway spruce, Scots pine, and European larch. In 1879 he purchased one of the original twelve interests in the Northern Pacific Railroad and served as its President from 1879 to 1881 for which the town of Billings, Montana is named after him. He accomplished a lot on the estate, including major additions to the house, purchasing many oil paintings of western landscapes, creating a model farm, and establishing the first sustainable forest in Vermont. Upon his death in 1890 he requested all this work to continue keeping the estate together, a wish that was carried out by his wife and children. Improvements continued through the next two generations through Mary Montagu Billings French and her daughter, Mary French. By this time the practice of sustainable forestry and farming was instilled in Mary French. While her brother, John was at Dartmouth College, his roommate was Laurance Rockefeller. They met and got married in 1934 at the First Congregational Church in Woodstock and kept her childhood home as a summer retreat and winter sports. As the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Laurance was brought up with a strong sense of philanthropy and a keen interest in conserving and protecting our natural wonders. He funded He funded the expansion of Grand Teton National Park and was instrumental in establishing and enlarging national parks in Wyoming, California, the Virgin Islands, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii, as well as, the funding of many urban parks and recreational areas. In September 1991, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for contributions to conservation and historic preservation by President George H. Bush. In 1992, he and his wife donated the Woodstock estate to the National Park Service creating a National Historic Site devoted to the conservation movement. Toady it is the only National Park that still maintains active timber management and in cooperation with the non-profit organization continues to operate the Billings Farm and Museum.
1) The Parking lot for the Historic Site is at the Billings Farm and Museum, which is a non-profit organization that continues to operate the Billings Farm. There is close cooperation with the National Historic Site which is actually across Vermont 12. There is an admission charge to tour the farm and visit the museum, which we decided not to do as our interest was with the National Historic Site and reforestation of Mount Tom. However, they do have an excellent documentary about the property and the lives of the three major owners in a very comfortable theater. If you prefer you can also view the film in the NPS Visitor Center across the highway and sit in hard back plastic chairs.
2) The Visitor Center for the National Historic Site is within the carriage house for the estate. Within they have a few very nice exhibits about each of the major owners and the history of the conservation movement in America. They also highlight some of the efforts they are using at the site, including power generation using solar panels and a turbine run from water flowing down from The Progue lake on the top of Mount Tom.
3) For an additional charge, you can sign up for a tour of the Billings Mansion which is left with the furnishings from the last owner, Laurance Rockefeller. Since this was the childhood home of his wife, Mary, nearly all of the furnishings actually date from the time of Billings. They did make some changes on the second and third floors, in particular adding 11 more bathrooms to supplement the original 3, as well as, updating the plumbing and electricity. I particularly liked the many large oil paintings of western landscapes and Tiffany stained glass windows. We also had the joy of meeting a granddaughter of Mary Billings French who had many stories of visiting “granny” at the estate as a child. The furnishings are very nice, but not as elaborate as other grand estates we have seen from this time period. Rather, as pointed out by our tour guide, the theme of conservation extended to the house. For instance, when the Rockefeller’s added a bay window to the library that became their family room, the bookshelves were recycled into a desk and table.
4) In addition to the reforestation of Mount Tom, Frederick Billings also constructed an elaborate network of carriage roads and trails for the enjoyment of the family, guest, and neighbors. The National Park Service continues to maintain over 20 miles of these carriage roads giving many opportunities to explore the park. We took the main trial from the Visitor Center up to The Progue, which is a lovely mountain lake that had been expanded to provide irrigation and power for the farm. Unfortunately, this trail did not go to any of the historical plantings of Norway Spruce, Scots Pine, or European Larch which I would have enjoyed visiting.