“And then the war came.”
Late last spring I spent a morning at Hildene, Robert Lincoln’s historic house in Manchester, Vt. Recent events remind me of that day.
150 years ago on March 4, Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office and gave his second inaugural address to a crowd of thousands standing in thick mud outside the capital. Young men were still dying in the Civil War.
150 years ago, on April 15, he was shot, and his son came to see him dying.
Abraham Lincoln’s words stand clear on the walls of a second floor room at Hildene — his son’s house, built in 1905 in Manchester, Vt. Among photographs and one of Lincoln’s few top hats, an exhibit remembers that day a bare few weeks before the end of the war. He spoke of men and women in slavery, one eighth of the population in 1860, and of the North and South swept into conflict.
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces … “
If he had lived he would have come to Vermont a few months later.
His son first came to Vermont in the summer of 1864 and stayed at the Equinox Hotel in Manchester, and he made a reservation then to bring his father the next summer, said Paula Maynard, press director at Hildene.
While it honors his father and his family life, Hildene acknowledges some challenging truths in Robert Lincoln.
Outside the house, beside a restored Pullman train car, the words of a Pullman Porter, C.F. Anderson, cross the wall — “free men yet slaves under Abe Lincoln’s son.”
Robert Lincoln became a successful lawyer in Chicago, Maynard said. He became the president of the Pullman Company, then the largest manufacturing company in the world.
In the wooden luxury railway car, the museum focuses on the porters who would have worked here, in an exhibit on the African-American History Trail. In the years after the end of slavery, the Pullman company employed more than 6,000 men as porters, said Stina Miller, an interpreter in the house and car.
Porters worked in difficult conditions, she said, with long hours and low wages. But the job raised their economic status, let them travel and meet influential passengers, sometimes helped them to better education, and gave a stability that helped to support the rising African-American middle class — and, she argues, led the way to the Civil Rights movement.
When Robert Lincoln came near retirement, he and his wife, Mary, bought 531 acres in Manchester and built this house between the Taconics and the Green Mountains, above the Batten Kill River. Lincolns continued to stay here at least half of each year for 70 years.
They built a Georgian Revival house with an Aeolian pipe organ and a French parterre garden with tree peonies opening 1,000 blooms, and an observatory that still opens occasionally for stargazing.
The museum gives glimpses into the family, like the diary entry Mary wrote just after her husband died. And on the front lawn, outside the main door, an outline shows the size of the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born.
His son’s estate still has 412 acres — a farm with a milking herd of Nubian goats; a bobolink sanctuary, a garden and forest management plan, and a boardwalk through wetlands and trails for walking and birding; a shop carrying cheeses from the farm, local honey and crafts, books on local pollinators and backyard chickens.
The museum is developing the farm to include a sustainable meadow and two barns with sheep and chickens, and they are breaking ground on a greenhouse.
“If we build new, we use wood from the forest,” Maynard said. “If people are here on the right day, they will see the sawmill in action. It’s a living, breathing operation.”
They do not give demonstrations at set times, she said, but the work of the farm goes on all the time. Every year, after the kid goats are born, volunteers milk the goats and help to wean the babies.