This Place in History: Morrill Homestead



At ‘This Place in History’ Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins takes us a spot nominated by a viewer.

“It’s Vermont’s first national landmark, the home of Senator Justin Morrill. And it’s just really beautiful,” said Perkins.

Tracy Martin, Historic Sites Section Chief with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation greeted us at the front door of the Morrill Homestead with blue booties to put on over our shoes, protecting the home’s original carpet.

“Justin Morrill was born here in Strafford, the son of a local blacksmith. From a young age, he was interested in all sorts of subjects and always borrowing books from people. He wanted to go to college. Because he came from a large family of modest means, it wasn’t financially feasible. So he opted to go into business and eventually went into business with his old mentor Judge Harris. They were quite successful. He was able to retire in 1848 at the age of 38,” introduced Martin.

“So he bought this piece of property and he began to build where he was going to be a gentleman farmer on his little estate in Strafford. One of his passions, as we talked about earlier, was education. He was largely self-educated. Most people think the very fact that he wasn’t able to go to college because of financial constraints really stuck with him. So when he went to Congress, he really made it his mission to create what we know as public colleges and universities around the country with his Land-Grant College Act.”

“Justin Morrill chose to build in what we call the Gothic Revival style. He was interested in the relationship between the interior of his home and the grounds as you’ll see when you go outside and explore the gardens and some of the outbuildings. That was a big feature of Gothic Revival architecture, connecting the inside with the outside.”

“There are also a lot of features that harken back to a romantic image of the Middle Ages. So you’ll see a lot of the detail that looks castle-like; crenellations we call them on the outside of the house. Inside the house, you should be looking for the pointed Gothic arch that appears in lots of the doorways and in other details around the house. He actually designed the house himself based on some of the models presented in those books.

“No architect. This is just a little insight into this man and his incredibly ability to absorb information and his broad interests. So not only was he interested in education, but agriculture and engineering. He was interested in architecture, fine art, which you’ll notice throughout his house there are examples of fine art which he collected throughout his career.”

“The house was originally built between 1848 and 1851, but in 1858 and 1859 Morrill made some changes to it. The largest change was the addition of a whole other room which was his library. That room is probably the most original in the whole house. If he walked into it today, he would recognize it today. All the furniture is in the same place. The pictures are hanging in the same places on the walls. It hasn’t changed a bit. The same books are on the shelves. I feel like you get closest to him in that room.”

“We have been trying to stick to Morrill’s original plan. He was interested in horticulture and agriculture and did a lot of experimenting with different flowers and small fruits and berries. He had an extensive apple orchard. The Friends of the Morrill Homestead are currently in a big project to restore the orchard, research the original trees, figuring out where those original varieties were planted in the orchard and trying to recreate that as closely as they can. We even have some surviving trees in Morrill’s orchard from Morrill’s time which is also terrific.”

“The site is open seasonally. We open on Memorial Day weekend. It’s open Wednesdays through Sundays through October 15th this year, usually mid October. Hours are 11 to 5 and we give guided tours of the house, upstairs and downstairs. The grounds are self-guided. There are some exhibits in outbuildings which people can visit on their own time. We welcome visitors.”

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here.

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