“(Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock) is just an incredible place for people to visit,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “And it has been a model farm for Vermonters for well over a century — still is so today! We’re going to go inside and we’re going to meet with Christine Scales, who’s the director of education.”
“Billings Farm is named after Frederick Billings, who purchased the farm in 1869 and established it as Billings Farm in 1871,” Scales said. “Frederick Billings grew up in the area, moved west to California and kind of made his fortune out there, but really felt a strong pull back to Vermont and back to his home.
“Seeing what was happening out west, with kind of the exploitation of the land out there, the loss of trees and habitat — when he came back to Vermont, he saw some of that happening here, too. Vermont had a really big sheep boom in the mid-1800s. They were importing a lot of Merino sheep, and so a lot of land was cleared for pasture. It was also cleared for firewood, for fertilizer, so there was a lot of erosion going on.
“Between over-grazing — just the amount of animals that were on the land were more than the land could support — and then you add that you’re cutting down trees, you’re losing that kind of support in the land as well. So, Frederick Billings bought this farm and the estate and wanted to set it kind of up as a model for how people could use the land and the resources of the land, but use it responsibly.”
“He had some help doing that,” Perkins observed.
“Absolutely,” Scales continued. “Obviously, Frederick Billings didn’t do it himself. He had a great farm manager in George Aitken, who was a Scottish immigrant who worked for him from 1884 until his death in 1910. We are in his office right now, and from here, he would have kept an eye on what’s happening on the estate and the reforestation efforts on the dairy herd and on the crop land that was along the river here.”
“Between the two of them, they settled on Jersey cows (as the primary livestock to be raised at the farm),” Perkins noted. “That’s a huge difference from sheep. Why that switch?”
“That was a really intentional choice, too,” Scales answered. “Sheep farming was becoming less and less profitable in the state. A lot of people who were raising sheep are moving west and leaving the state; the population was declining.”
Mike Hoey asked, “Would Mr. Aitken have lived in this building, too — perhaps upstairs?”
“Yes, the house was designed for three specific purposes,” Scaled replied. “Number one was as a place of business. Another main purpose was to be as a residence for George Aitken and his family; he had a wife and four daughters who all lived here. The third purpose was as a butter factory, so in the basement, we have an 1890s butter factory which is called the creamery.
“We’re still a working farm today; we still produce milk and sell it. It was private, owned by the Billings family, until the 1980s.”
Perkins concluded, “So, how can people learn more about Frederick Billings and about this farm?”
“They can come visit us at Billings Farm & Museum,” Scales said. “We are open every day through the end of October, and then open weekends after that until we re-open in April. And they can visit our website as well as our social media pages.”