Going “Green” in Vermont

“The great question, whether man is of nature, or above her.”

George Perkins Marsh

State 42: Vermont - June, 18th 2018


We woke up at a Walmart at the border town of West Lebanon, NH well rested and ready for a new day. Yesterday, I visited the grave site and childhood home of Alcoholic Anonymous co-founder; Bill Wilson, and could not wait to see what adventures lie ahead. Today, we drive 15 miles West back to Woodstock, VT to visit the National Park depicted on the reverse of the Vermont State Quarter: Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historic Park. Although the name may sound like a corporate law firm, Marsh, Billings and Rockefeller National Historic Park preserves a very intricate part of Vermont’s history, which greatly influenced the future of our country. The name of the park honors the three prior owners of the property: George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Billings and Laurance Rockefeller. The America we know today would look starkly different had it not been for the efforts of these three champions of conservation!

Although you may not know George Perkins Marsh by name, generations upon generations of Americans have and continue to be directly impacted by his life’s work. Born in Woodstock, VT in 1801, George Perkins Marsh was a lawyer, ambassador, congressman, and author, but is best known as America’s first environmentalist. Marsh was the first American to recognize and publicize the results of man's destructive actions on the environment. In his 1864 book entitled “Man and Nature”, Marsh historically assesses the decline of earlier societies due to a lack of land stewardship, and warned humans could destroy the Earth, and ourselves, if we don’t restore and sustain the environment. Marsh developed a philosophy of land stewardship, which laid the groundwork for the modern conservation movement in America. The water you drink, the air you breathe, and the trees providing you shade are all the embodiment of Marsh’s legacy, and America is undeniably “greener” today for his efforts.

Born in Royalton, Vermont in 1823, Frederick Billings was a lawyer, financier, politician, business man and environmentalist. During the California Gold Rush, Billings moved to San Francisco to establish a law practice, and became extremely wealthy as the cities first land claims attorney. While out West, Billings became enamored with the giant sequoia groves, Yosemite Valley’s towering granite cliffs and the beauty throughout the American West. In 1864, Billings returned to his home state of Vermont, and discovered a land starkly different from his childhood memories. Decades of sheep grazing and clear cutting forests had transformed Vermont’s lush green mountains into barren hills and eroded lands devoid of any trees. Billings read Marsh’s book “Man and Nature” and he was horrified to see Marsh’s warnings about man’s destructive impact on nature playing out before his very eyes! In 1869, Billings purchased Marsh’s 246-acre estate in Woodstock VT, and began implementing Marsh’s theories on land conservation. Billings began purchasing failing farms throughout Vermont, and reforested the region with species of trees native to the state. In addition, Billings introduced scientifically managed herds of cows into Vermont establishing what would today become Vermont’s 2.2-billion-dollar dairy industry! Let all Americans pay homage to Fredrick Billings for without him Ben & Jerry’s Ice cream would not exist!

The Billing's estate remained in the family for two more generations. In 1951, the property was willed to Frederick Billing's granddaughter; Mary Billings French. However, the world came to know her as Mary French Rockefeller, wife of Laurance Rockefeller. Throughout Laurance and Mary's lives together, they worked closely on philanthropic projects aimed on propagating environmental conservationism. Lawrence founded the American Conservation Association, and advised every sitting president since Eisenhower on issues involving environmentalism. Laurance and Mary expanded Grand Teton National Park, and were instrumental in establishing and enlarging National Parks in Wyoming, California, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii. In 1991, George H.W. Bush awarded Laurance the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to conservation and historic preservation in America. In 1992, Mary and Laurance Rockefeller donated the Billing’s Estate in Woodstock, VT to the US government with the agreement it would be transformed into a National Historic Park to promote environmental conservation in America.

Established on August 26, 1992 by an act of Congress and Presidential decree by George H.W Bush, Marsh, Billings and Rockefeller National Historic Park is the only unit in the National Park System dedicated to interpreting the evolution of conservation in America. In 2005, the Rainforest Alliance awarded the park the prestigious Forest Stewardship Council Certification making it the second federal land in the US to receive such a designation for sustainable forest management. Features of the 643 acre park include: lush gardens, scenic viewpoints, carriage roads, a series of hiking trails, and a centralized pond. However, the crown jewel of this national treasure is the mansion once home to Marsh, Billings and Rockefeller. Designated a National Historical Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the mansion and its surrounding 4 acres have been permanently preserved for their association with Marsh, Billings, and Rockefeller and an exquisite example of Queen Anne architecture.

As an anti-consumeristic frugal minimalist, I do not fancy frequenting aristocratic relics from the Gilded Age. I have previously visited the Vanderbilt and DuPont mansions. With the cost of admission upwards of $50 per person, we should be served complimentary watercress finger sandwiches lovingly placed on a freshly baked baguette paired with the finest Chianti one could find. Instead of memorializing elitists from a bygone era, I believe their mansions should be bulldozed, and be replaced with monuments commemorating the millions of workers exploited by greedy and ruthless industrialists. As you can tell, I was not overly thrilled about touring yet another 19th century mansion, and having to pay admission only amplified my angst!

Upon entry, I immediately noticed distinct differences between the mansion at Marsh, Billings, and Rockefeller National Park and others I have previously visited. Most noteworthy, the home was lived in by three separate families. Each family preserved the history and heritage of the former families while leaving their own lasting imprint on the property. For example, in an upstairs bedroom, I saw a 19th century Tiffany Co. desk lamp on a table right next to a 1970's boombox. The grand formal turn of the century traditional dining room led to a 1950's kitchen complete with a Maytag dishwasher! In one room, I encountered ornate and dramatic wall textures, horizontal bands of leaded windows, and elaborate inlaid wood flooring traditionally attributed to American Queen Anne Revival Architecture. In the next room, the decor consisted of clean lines, gentle curves, and the utilization of a variety of organic materials indicative of Mid-Century Modernism. The contrasting eras of design were visually stimulating to the point of the irony being excruciating. Please see the pictures below.

18th century Rome was the epicenter of Neoclassical art, and 19th century France birthed impressionism. America’s first major art movement came in the mid-19th century; Hudson River School. Founded in the New York’s Hudson Valley, The Hudson River School consisted of a group of loosely associated painters who found inspiration in the majestic natural landscape of our country. Many Americans who purchased their paintings never experienced such dramatic scenes in person. However, the American landscapes painted by the Hudson Valley School artists were instrumental in shifting public opinion to ensure such scenes would be preserved for future generations. Thus, the artists of the Hudson River School movement, not only played an intricate role in propagating America’s conservation movement, it generated public support leading to the creation of the National Park System.

Since I was touring the former home of three of America's greatest environmentalists, I was not surprised to see works from the Hudson Valley School heavily depicted, but the quality and grandeur of pieces surpassed my own expectations. On two occasions, I lost my tour group as I found myself mesmerized by the works of the masters. A few of the landscapes on display I personally recognized having seen strikingly similar scenes during my cross country travels. The images painted and popularized by the Hudson Valley School Artists over 175 years ago enabled me to enjoy such places over the past year. Please see the pictures below of a sampling of the Hudson Valley School collection at Marsh, Billings and Rockefeller National Park.

In the library of the mansion was a stunning leaded stained glass window depicting a torch being passed between two hands. At the time, the significance of the window eluded me, and I assumed it had something to do with the Olympics. As I departed the park and walked back to Rosie, random memories from my cross country trip flashed through my mind. I remembered being moved to tears watching a sunrise over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I recalled experiencing the awe inspiring power and majestic beauty of Yellowstone Falls. I remembered standing in the depths of Yosemite Valley with its granite cliffs towering towards the heavens. Like a prophetic word transcending space and time, the meaning of the window finally revealed itself! Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller, and the Hudson Valley School Artists environmentalism ensured the America of their era is the America we can all enjoy today. They have passed the torch to our generation, and their legacy of conservationism must now become our own.

Please see additional pictures of my tour of the mansion at Marsh, Billings, and Rockefeller National Park.