- Historic Sites
Woodstock, Vermont, owes its appeal as much to the legacy of its residents as to its natural setting
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
Marsh had waged a lifelong fight against the loss of the American wilderness, especially the deforestation that had turned much of the Green Mountain State barren. In his seminal volume Man and Nature , he wrote: “We have felled forest enough everywhere. . . . Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions and devise means for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows, and the pastures.” On Central Avenue, Woodstock’s commercial district, a lush little park is set a few steps below street level at a point where Kedron Brook makes one of its welcome appearances. This leafy enclosure, home to butterflies and wildflowers, is aptly named George Perkins Marsh Man and Nature Park.
Billings took up Marsh’s cause, paying for the planting of trees throughout the state but concentrating on the ridges and hills that rim Woodstock. Climb the easy trail leading from Faulkner Park up Mount Tom, where the sun barely makes its way through the trees, and everywhere the heady scent of primeval mulch prevails; then try to picture the raw pile of thinned-out topsoil that Billings confronted barely a hundred years ago.
Back home in Woodstock for good after losing the presidency of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1881, Billings turned his talents to his dairy farm, located half a mile north of town, which he had established in 1871 by importing a herd of cows directly from the isle of Jersey. He ran Billings Farm along the most progressive lines, soon turning it into a nationally known operation. It’s still a working farm, and in 1983 it opened to the public as an agricultural museum as well, telling the story of Vermont’s family farms of the nineteenth century through its happy breed of cream-colored cattle and with exhibits housed On two floors of an immense old barn. It’s a place of exceptional beauty and peacefulness, particularly late in the afternoon when, as the ticket taker remarked, the last of the school groups are gone.
Woodstock’s present-day benefactors, Laurance Rockefeller and his wife, Mary (who is Billings’s granddaughter), have seen to the continuing upkeep of the farm, its transition into a museum, and the skillful restoration of its Queen Anne-style manager’s house. Over the years the Rockefellers have bought up much of the hilly land surrounding Woodstock, and they have arranged to donate more than 550 acres of Mount Tom as well as their own home (the original, now much grander Marsh Homestead) to the federal government to create Vermont’s first national historic park.
The Rockefeller touch is all over the village. They paid for power lines to be buried, and they own and rent out some 10 percent of the houses in town. Until very recently the 1969 Woodstock Inn, which occupies a prime site on the oval-shaped town green, replacing a much older hotel, was a Rockefeller enterprise too.
Really, for all the days of its life, Woodstock has benefited from the good works of its citizens, many of them intertwined through marriage and long years of settlement here. So the town can’t be so easily dismissed as “Hollywood” after all. We’re not talking about a cardboard church steeple here, a false front there, a sweet old lady on her front-porch rocker, and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney skipping down the street in suspect harmony. This isn’t a piece of make-believe but a product of people who were able to peer into their particular corner of the future as far as any human beings anywhere. And what they envisioned over a span of two centuries still suits our times.