“We’re at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock with Steve Perkins, the executive director of the Vermont Historical Society,” Mike Hoey said. “Steve, what brings us here this week?”
“Mike, we’re in a really beautiful and interesting place that gets into the history of conservation and land management, farming and all sorts of stuff,” Perkins said. “And really, a gift to the nation from the Billings family and the Rockefeller family.”
“Frederick Billings buys the property from the Marsh family,” Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller interpretive park ranger Rachel Freundlich said. “He’s inspired by George Perkins Marsh’s book ‘Man And Nature’. After Frederick Billings passes away, the property will go to his wife, Julia, and she’ll manage it for about 24 years — and then it’s really her daughters that do a lot to continue the legacy of their father’s work.
“So, the three daughters — Laura, Mary and Elizabeth — Laura will learn accounting and agriculture and help manage the farm down the street. Mary does a lot of work with the Young Women’s Christian Association. She actually is a member of the (YWCA’s) national board (of directors). The youngest daughter, Elizabeth, actually studies botany. She goes to school at Barnard College in New York. She’ll collect over 1200 specimens of plants from around the area and eventually have a type of fern named after her, recognized by the New York Botanical Society.
“This property is one of the oldest managed forests in the United States, and so when (the) Billings family lived here, they were replanting. They were reforesting the area because Vermont was about 80% deforested, and once the property gets to be reforested, the women of the family start to experiment with different types of gardens. There’s fern gardens, there’s formal gardens, Victorian-style gardens as well, and so they’re using the property as sort of a scientific experiment.”
Perkins asked, “How did it come into the Rockefeller family and then ultimately become a (national historical) park?”
“Frederick Billings’s granddaughter is named Mary French,” Freundlich replied. “And she will marry Laurence Rockefeller.”
“That’s John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil Company fame’s grandson,” Hoey noted.
“Absolutely,” Freundlich continued. “But (the property stays within the Billings family. This is a Billings family home; this is Mary’s family home. They recognize the importance of this place in the conservation movement in the United States, so they’ll give it back to the people in 1992 and then we open our doors in 1998.”
“We’re very pleased right now to have Rick Kendall, the superintendent here at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, joining us,” Hoey said. “Now, Rick, what kinds of things did Laurence Rockefeller and Mary Billings French have in mind for the property when they made the gift?”
“This park was actually sort of the culmination of a lot of learning that they had done, having been involved in a variety of other national park projects,” Kendall answered. “The Billings property here includes not only the national park, but the Billings Farm & Museum. Rather than give the entire thing to the National Park Service, Laurence split them up but only gave the forest to the National Park Service — which means, in order to tell an effective and full story of the conservation history here, we have to work with partners.
“The carriage roads and trails have an easement on them that is owned by the Woodstock Inn, and that makes it so that the national park needs to work with the local business community. There are several conservation easements on lands that are important to our viewshed. We don’t own the land, but we own an easement that preserves the land, so the national park then has to go and work with private landowners in the conservation community as well. So, there’s lots of different ways that Laurence sort of baked partnerships into how we do our business here at the park.”
“Our park is open from Memorial Day weekend to October 31,” Freundlich continued. “Our grounds stay open year-round, but they will turn into cross-country (skiing) and snowshoe trails in the winter. People are free to come and explore here, explore the trails, learn about the site. We have guided programs that people can sign up for as well, and all of that information can be found on our website.”