During the Gilded Age, the gentleman farm was an important element of the upper-class lifestyle. They served as formal summer mansions and working farms that often supplied produce and dairy products to the owners’ winter residences.
George Washington led the way as the nation’s first gentleman farmer in chief. But the fashion for elegant mansions sitting on landscaped farmland didn’t take hold until after the Civil War.
The Gentleman Farm
Gentleman farms reflected the outsize egos of their wealthy owners during an age of soaring inequality. They sat on large swathes of land, sometimes thousands of acres. Elite architects designed the mansions as well as the farmhouses, barns, carriage houses, greenhouses and follies.
Sometimes business moguls or their heirs used their farms to demonstrate their prowess in agricultural pursuits. They developed prize livestock or managed woodlots scientifically or created vast formal gardens. Landscape designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Beatrix Farrand sculpted the grounds for scenic vistas, pleasant walks and interesting flower gardens.
The income tax put an end to many of the Gilded Age estates, though a brief perusal of real estate listings shows the gentleman farms may have entered a new heyday. Here, though, are six late-19th to early 20th century gentleman farms, one in each New England state.
Eolia Mansion at Harkness State Park
Stephen V. Harkness had the good fortune to invest silently in John D. Rockefeller’s fledgling Standard Oil Co. His son Edward, clearly a fan of the gentleman farm, built a 42-room mansion on 230 acres overlooking Long Island Sound and named it Eolia.
The family used the estate as a summer retreat and a working farm, which included a prize dairy herd and vegetable gardens. They later added outbuildings, like the teahouse and the carriage house.
Architect James Gamble Rogers redesigned the interior of the Roman Renaissance Revival style mansion to evoke the feeling of the inside of an oyster shell. Landscape designer Beatrix Farrand improved the grounds with lush formal gardens.
In 1920, Mary Harkness turned some of the grounds into a summer camp for children with polio. In 1950, she left the estate to the State of Connecticut. For years the house had to be boarded up, but by 1998 it had been restored.
People can rent Eolia for weddings and parties, as well as visit the estate on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day.
275 Great Neck Rd., Waterford, Conn.
Isaac W. Dyer Estate
Gilded Age gentleman farms are increasingly scarce in Maine, but the Isaac W. Dyer Estate survives in a rural section of Gorham.
Isaac W. Dyer and his wife lived in Portland, where he built a large corporate law practice. For many years he served as district attorney, earning a reputation as an old-school conservative. Dyer also wrote a biography of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle.
He bought the large Greek Revival farmhouse and 126 acres in 1887 and transformed it into a gentleman farm. Eventually he built many of the outbuildings, including sheds, barns, a garage and a greenhouse. Landscapers created a croquet lawn, a sweeping circular driveway and a rare walled garden.
In 1998, the National Register of Historic Places put the Isaac W. Dyer Estate on its list.
The Dyer Estate has shrunk to 6.4 acres and is privately owned.
180 Fort Hill Rd., Gorham, Maine
Turner Hill Farm
North Shore businessman Charles Rice and his wife Anne Proctor Rice bought 700 acres and a farmhouse on Turner Hill in Ipswich, Mass., just before the turn of the century. They then crossed the Atlantic with their architect, William Rantoul, to check out the gentleman farms in England and Scotland for ideas. The Rices came back and spent the next few years building an immense Elizabethan mansion.
They also built 13 other buildings, including cottages for the butler and gardener, stables, a garage and barns. As many as 50 people worked the farm in the summer to pick produce and fruit and milk the 20 cows. The gigantic house required 22 domestic servants.
The Turners had three children, and during the summer held children’s parties every week for 175 children. Anne Rice, a skilled equestrienne, broke many bones riding over the property, and in 1933 died when her horse threw her. Charles Rice declined and died 10 years later. The LaSalette Fathers bought the property and turned it into a spiritual retreat. The National Register of Historic Places listed Turner Hill Farm in 1982.
Today it functions as a golf club and condominiums. Another gentleman farm in Ipswich, Castle Hill, is less than 10 miles away.
Historic Ipswich has fascinating photos of Turner Hill’s early days. Click here to see them.
251 Turner Hill, Ipswich, Mass.
The Fells, John Hay’s Gentleman Farm
In the 1880s, New Hampshire farmers were abandoning their land and moving west for better farmland. The New Hampshire state government stepped in and encouraged wealthy families to buy up the properties and turn them into gentleman farms.
John Hay, who served as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and U.S. Secretary of State, answered the call. He bought 1,000 acres of land on the shores of Lake Sunapee in 1888. Hay hoped to establish a summer colony for his group of friends. But then one of his friends, Clover Adams, committed suicide, and Hay abandoned his plan.
Instead, Hay built a rustic cottage and named the property The Fells, a term for a rocky upland pasture. His son Clarence and wife later expanded the cottage into a 22-room Colonial Revival mansion. Clarence wrote a book about it in 1962, called Gardening in Granite. “This is about a rock garden on Lake Sunapee, in the foothills of the White Mountains,” he wrote.
The Hays donated much of the land to the government, and when they died The Fells became a nonprofit organization. The Fells, a preservation project of The Garden Conservancy, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today visitors can hike the forest paths and, in season, visit the house and grounds, which include a rose terrace, a rock garden of rare alpines and a hidden walled garden.
456 Route 103A, Newbury, N.H.
CCRI Knight Campus, Once a Gentleman Farm
The Fruit of the Loom brand started with Rhode Island’s Knight family, headed by Benjamin and Robert Knight. When Robert died in 1912, the New York Times called him the largest cotton manufacturer in the world.
The Knights actually replaced the Spragues as the dominant manufacturing family in Rhode Island. When the Sprague family’s businesses went belly up in the financial panic of 1873, the Knight family bought many of the Spragues’ textile mills, mill housing, company stores and large farms.
The Knight Estate in the Natick section of Warwick was considered the nicest of the Knights’ gentleman farms. It had a large Federal and Greek Revival home and a number of fine farm buildings. Robert Knight used the farm to develop prize livestock.
In the 20th century, developers bulldozed some of the farm to make way for the Midland Mall. Then in 1964, Royal Webster Knight donated the farm to the State of Rhode Island for a junior college.
Today, the old Knight Farm forms the nucleus of the Community College of Rhode Island. In direct opposition to the ideal of the gracious farm, CCRI built a Brutalist megastructure on the campus to house all educational functions. Some of the original farm buildings still survive. The college uses the manor house as the president’s residence.
400 East Ave, Warwick, R.I.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in history, had many descendants who built elaborate mansions and yachts. Vanderbilt’s granddaughter, Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb, chose to create one of the Vanderbilt’s gentleman farms in Shelburne, Vt. Her brother George then one-upped her with the granddaddy of them all, Biltmore, in Asheville, N.C.
Eliza and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, bought up small farms to create their 3,800-acre estate in 1886. They hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the winding drives, scenic vistas, parklands, gardens and a golf course. Architect Robert Henderson Robertson designed 16 buildings, including a stunning Shingle Style mansion. No less a conservationist than Gifford Pinchot advised them on forest management.
The farm began to shrink in 1910, and the next generations of Vanderbilts struggled to keep it up. In 1972, the Webb descendants incorporated Shelburne Farms as a nonprofit educational organization. It has 400 acres of sustainably managed woods and a grass-fed herd of Brown Swiss cows.
The National Register of Historic Places put Shelburne Farms on its list because of its significance as a Gilded Age ornamental farm.
It’s also one of the principal concert sites for the Vermont Mozart Festival. Shelburne Farms also features an inn and restaurant, open seasonally, on the shores of Lake Champlain, tours, walking trails, a children’s farmyard and a farm store that sells, among other things, cheddar cheese.
Shelburne Farms, 1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne, Vermont
Images: Eolia By I, PostMan1107, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2412245; Isaac W. Dyer Estate By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35570189; Turner Hill Farm By User:Magicpiano – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21986299; Knight Estate By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20439041;The Fells, By The Fells –http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/the_fells_newbury/600x/the_fells_newbury_600x.jpg, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11155642. This story was updated in 2022.