During my very pleasant experience in visiting the fascinating Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont, I somehow felt that I was on a mini-tour of the entire state. This working farm and museum seem to combine and reflect all of Vermont from several perspectives including:
- Vermont’s history
- Its success in land and forest preservation
- The introduction of sound farming practices
- Vermont tourism
Historical personages George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Billings, his granddaughter Mary French Rockefeller, and her husband Laurance Spelman Rockefeller are key players that have led to the variety of Billings Farm. Mr. Marsh and Mr. Billings played key roles in emphasizing and implementing the following:
- After cutting down forests, the systematic replenishment of new trees for new forestry, of course, and to prevent flooding and soil erosion
- For farming, the establishment of safeguards to prevent the erosion of fertile farm soil
- The implementation of farming procedures to enhance crop production, such as crop rotation, fallow use of selected land portions, and new plowing methods as alternatives to traditional straight up-and-down plowing
- To promote tourism, the reservation of portions of public lands for camping, sightseeing and plain old exploring
- For dairy farming, the use of scientific practices to promote milk production and the efficient use of milk output in butter churning and related milk byproducts
Mr. Marsh and Mr. Billings (as of 1871) were the two original owners of Billings Farm. They saw the need for the above improvements in practices and vigorously promoted them. Mr. Billings, a railroad executive, read what Mr. Marsh wrote on the subject and worked to put it into practice all of his life. He planted more than 10,000 trees on his farm and adjacent areas. His daughter, Mary French Rockefeller, inherited the farm and married Laurance Rockefeller. Through this union, they continued their efforts.
By the late 19th century, decades of aggressive forestry had stripped most of the land. Photographs from that time graphically show how barren much of the Vermont landscape was. Conservation and education efforts by the above individuals helped demonstrate how systematic replanting and controlled forestry would preserve the tree population, prevent floods, rejuvenate natural beauty and landscape and, generally, work in everyone’s interests.
To tour Billings Farm, start with the museum on the second floor of the visitors center. It provides fascinating displays of the history and all related aspects of the farm from the 19th century through today. Many exhibits vividly portray farm life in earlier times.
State-of-the-art dairy farming with Jersey cows is described in another exhibit section. Extensive hay provisions are required to sustain these cows through the long and severe Vermont winters. Mr. Billings developed a premier herd of cows that, over the years, has won numerous awards. He also established an intensive system to measure their health and productivity.
Maple syrup harvesting is another Vermont farm specialty. When sap is drawn from trees, it is heated in special kettles. For farm use, temperatures of 238 degrees Fahrenheit are needed, while slightly higher temperatures of 240 to 245 degrees must be reached for it to be sold as a food product.
Apple orchards and apple picking have always been an important part of Vermont farm life. The museum describes how this fruit was picked, stored and used to make an endless variety of family foods.
In decades past, before sophisticated refrigeration, large quantities of ice were needed. Even today, ice is still used to provide historical demonstrations. Modern saws with safety protection are used to cut ice in streams and lakes. The ice is then lifted from the water and shifted onto carriers for ice-house storage.
After enjoying the many exhibits in the museum, I suggest viewing the very enjoyable and instructive film about Billings Farm. It includes the historical development of the entire operation, starting with the 19th century.
After that, visitors can take a guided tour of the 1890 Billings farmhouse. The structure was built as a residence for the farm manager, a prestigious position at the time. Many features of the house were well ahead of their time including running water. In the basement, a mechanical device churned butter on a large scale. In short, all these conveniences were aimed, even then, towards making Billings Farm into a commercial operation, not just a family farm.
George Aitken, the first manager of Billings Farm, took over daily management in 1890, the year that Mr. Billings died, and he continued in that role until 1910. Mr. Aitken and subsequent managers lived in the house through the 1980s.
The farmhouse tour schedule includes several cooking demonstrations. These emphasize the types of traditional foods prepared on Vermont family farms. Often, the air is permeated with the smell of rhubarb pie and other local specialties. I got a sense of the satisfaction that farm families must have enjoyed from their productivity.
If you wish to take a break, there is a dairy bar adjoining the house that offers a variety of tasty food and drinks.
In a stand-alone barn, both adults and children can view the dairy cow herd and horses. In the interest of safety for all concerned — both people and animals — shoes must be disinfected before entering the barn. Often, newly born calves and horses can be seen, which children especially enjoy.
Southdown sheep are kept in separate pastures. Because of their feeding habits, sheep apparently need grass that doesn’t interfere with the types grazed by cows and horses. Oxen and Berkshire hogs also have their own quarters. Other structures on the farm include a chicken barn and wagon barn.
By 1890, the farm produced a very impressive 5,000 pounds of butter annually. In the 1940s, Billings Farm started a successful commercial dairy operation. However, due to the sheer size of the growing American Midwest, Vermont eventually lost its earlier dairy production leadership. Even so, today, the state continues to provide many innovative techniques in sound farm production and maintenance, as well as forest sustainability, which benefit the entire country.
All in all, when visiting Billings Farm & Museum, a good time, and an educational time, can be had by all. It offers numerous programs to appeal to every age level. To borrow a phrase, I can truthfully say that I would enjoy visiting Billings Farm and Vermont again and again, until the cows come home.
Billings Farm & Museum
Route 12 North (P. O. Box 489), Woodstock, VT 05091
GPS Coordinates: 43.63152,-72.51588
Visitor Center: (802) 457-2355
Hours: Open daily 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. from May 1 through October 31
Open Weekends only during November through February
Open Christmas and Presidents Weeks 10:00 a.m. -3:30 p.m.