Home New England Historic Houses Hildene, The Family Home Robert Todd Lincoln Wished He’d Grown Up In

Hildene, The Family Home Robert Todd Lincoln Wished He’d Grown Up In

He was ashamed of "Honest Abe" and his humble roots

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In 1975, Robert Todd Lincoln’s Vermont mansion, Hildene, was falling into ruin. Its last owner, Abraham Lincoln’s great granddaughter, Mary Beckwith, had died in July. She had had little interest in her Lincoln legacy, asking, “Why should anybody be interested in all this old stuff we’ve got around the house?”

Mary Lincoln Beckwith

Backwith had inherited an eccentric nature from her great-grandmother, Mary Todd Lincoln. She bought three airplanes, kept small wild animals in the house and ran errands in town wearing overalls, which did not flatter her rotund figure. She never married or had children, and she grew into a recluse.

She left the mansion to the Christian Science Church, including 400 acres. The church couldn’t afford to renovate the property, but a nonprofit stepped in, bought the estate and preserved it.

Mary had a brother, Bob, the president’s last descendant and a self-described spoiled brat. Bob inherited all his sister’s personal papers and Lincoln relics. He decided to let scholars see for the first time the news clips and legal briefs his grandfather collected.

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only Lincoln child to outlive his mother. He had fallen in love with Vermont as a 20-year-old. He, his mother and his brother Tad had visited the state to escape the Washington, D.C., summer.

Robert had succeeded in life, having served as U.S. Secretary of War, minister to Great Britain and president of the Pullman Railroad Co. He’d gotten very, very rich, and he could easily afford to build a gentleman farm in the Battenkill Valley.

Robert Todd Lincoln as Secretary of War

But he believed he lived under a curse. He’d lost his father and three brothers. His only son, Abraham Lincoln II, had shown great promise but died at 16.  His daughter Jessie Beckwith lived a life filled with scandal. And he’d had close connections to three presidential assassinations.

Robert was at his father’s side when he died. Years later, as Secretary of War, he stood 40 feet away from President James A. Garfield when an assassin fatally shot him. Then he happened to visit the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo when President William McKinley was shot there. He visited the wounded president at his bedside.

But his mother’s problems probably caused him the most unhappiness.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln for many years had suffered from migraine headaches, depression, eccentricity and angry outbursts. She also liked to spend money, and psychiatrists today think she may have had bipolar disorder.

insanity-file-mary-todd-lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln during the White House years.

As a widow, Mary often fell into severe depression. She seemed delusional at times, and she spent money extravagantly while badgering people for more. Robert agonized over what to do with his troubled mother. Finally he had her declared insane and committed to the Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia, Ill.

Mary managed to engineer her release, and then publicly trashed Robert. She called him ‘the monster of mankind.’ They remained estranged until shortly before her death in 1882.

MTL Insanity File

When Robert’s last surviving grandson, Bob Beckwith, let researchers into Hildene to poke around, they found that Robert had destroyed many of his papers.

But in a small closet in his bedroom, he’d stashed a cache of legal documents, newspaper clippings and letters, which he labeled “MTL Insanity File.” Surprisingly, the Insanity File contained more letters critical of Robert Todd Lincoln than sympathetic to him. The letters reveal a tortured son rather than a monster of mankind and a pitiful, distressing mother.

Today, you can see the closet where Robert stored the MTL Insanity file. You can also see some of the Lincoln family papers in a small museum at Hildene on the second floor.

Hildene

The mansion today appeals to people with several different interests: history, architecture, landscaping, farming and nature.

As visitors approach Hildene, they may notice a square mowed into the grass. It indicates the size of Abraham Lincoln’s Kentucky cabin. That would have mortified Robert, who felt ashamed of his father’s humble background.

Docents greet visitors outside the home and give a short overview of the mansion. People are then free to take a self-guided-tour of the first and second floors of the 24-room house. They include Robert Todd’s library and bedroom, his wife Mary’s bedroom, the kitchen and servants’ quarters. Only the Lincolns owned the house, so most of the furniture is original.

One guest bedroom was left the way it was when Mary Beckwith died, so you can see what the house was like in 1975.

The property includes 13 historic buildings, including the mansion, formal garden, observatory, welcome center, museum store, 1903 Pullman car, a solar powered goat dairy and a cheese-making facility. A tram takes visitors to the three areas of the property, which includes walking trails.

Five Things You’ll Remember About Hildene

Pipe Organ

Inside the house, the sound of the 1908 Aeoian pipe organ fills the air every 15 minutes. The instrument, which has a thousand pipes, was the ultimate home entertainment device for the fabulously rich in the early 20th century. It creates large lush sounds that include soft flute music, trumpet fanfares, a clarinet, a french horn, an oboe, a harp and chimes.

Goats and Alpacas

Gentleman farms were a big thing among the super-wealthy around the turn of the last century. At Hildene, a tram takes you to a small farm where you can pet the goats. The estate functions not only as a tourist attraction, but as an agricultural teaching facility. It has a greenhouse, composting space, vegetable gardens, apple orchards, barn and a cheesemaking room. An 1832 schoolhouse is still used for education programs.

Pullman Car

The luxurious Pullman car on the Hildene property didn’t belong to Robert Todd Lincoln, but he traveled in one like it. It’s a 1903 Sunbeam with Tiffany windows and hand-carved woodwork, a product of craftsmanship rarely seen today. The wood paneling opens to sleeping berths. You can take a tram to see it.

Formal Gardens

The manicured gardens outside the back door offers stunning views of the Battenkill Valley.nestled between the Green Mountains and Taconic Mountains. Hildene also has walking trails that take you over a 600-foot floating boardwalk over wetlands.

Stovepipe Hat

In Hildene’s small museum you can see Abraham Lincoln items, including the top hat he wore to Ford’s Theater and the mirror he looked in before leaving.

Lincoln’s hat

Hildene Surroundings

It’s hard to describe Manchester, Vt., without using the words “quintessential New England” and “charm.” It has the white steepled church, the antique shops, the inns and the taverns. It also has marble sidewalks and Orvis, the family owned mail-order business.

Manchester includes two settled areas: Manchester Village and Manchester Center. In the village is one of Vermont’s last 19th-century grand hotels, the Equinox House. Mary Todd Lincoln and her sons stayed there one summer; so did Ulysses S. Grant.

View from HIldene’s backyard

If you visit…

Hildene is open year round from 9:30 to 4:30 Thursdays through Sundays, closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Check the website for more details.

The house is mostly wheelchair accessible. A gift shop sells snacks, but you can bring a picnic lunch and eat on the grounds.

Plan to spend 3-4 hours to see everything.

To watch a video, click here.


Images: Pullman car By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA – Robert Todd Lincoln Pullman car, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51513139. Stovepipe had By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA – Abraham Lincoln's Stovepipe Hat, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51513163. Hildene gardens By ManchesterView, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52387889. Hildene backyard view CC0 licensed photo by Seth Goldstein from the WordPress Photo Directory. By Justjoshfunk111 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72816574. Hildene angle view by David via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Aeolian pipes by Les Willilams via Flickr, CC by SA 2,0

 

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