Hildene tour opens the door on Lincoln family life

Associated Press Modified: November 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm •  Published: November 20, 2012
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MANCHESTER, Vt. (AP) — Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin but his son built himself a mansion. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's only child to survive to adulthood, built the Georgian Revival home, called Hildene, as a seasonal dream home for his wife Mary Harlan Lincoln and their children.

But Hildene is no dusty museum. Located on 412 acres (167 hectares) between two spectacular mountain ranges, the homestead offers a feeling of warmth, family and hospitality along with the history lessons.

The site is expecting a boost in interest thanks to the new Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the former president and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his son. The Hildene staff is looking forward to welcoming more visitors and teaching them about the place where Lincoln descendants lived until 1975, said Paula Maynard, press director and group tour leader.

"I've been telling people for eight years, which is when I first got here, that this movie was coming, and we'd get to tell this part of the story," Maynard says. "I think people stopped believing me. ... But we expect visitation to grow from it, and it's been growing anyway between 8 and 10 percent annually."

One frequently asked question is what Hildene means. Maynard says the word combines phrases that mean "hill and valley with a stream," and that Robert Todd Lincoln apparently had the name in mind from the start of construction in 1903.

Visitors also are curious about the relationship between Robert Todd Lincoln and his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he had committed to a hospital for mental illness. Decades later, in a bedroom that served as his quarters in later years when he suffered from arthritis, papers were found in a closet safe with medical documentation that validated his decision to hospitalize her. Before she died, the two were reconciled.

Before building Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln had served in Washington as secretary of war for President James Garfield and overseas as the United States' ambassador to Great Britain for President Benjamin Harrison.

But Robert Todd Lincoln apparently had wanted to live in Vermont for many years. His law partner Edward Isham was born in Bennington and bought a home in Manchester 15 years before Hildene was completed. After Lincoln became chairman of Pullman Company in 1897, at the time one of the country's biggest companies, he could afford to build the house of his dreams.

Maynard says, however, that the Lincolns "were not lavish and always wanted simple elegance. The Lincolns' main social life was in Chicago. They lived there half the year and here half the year. When they came to Vermont, it was for the same reasons we do — for a getaway."

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