During my very pleasant experience in visiting Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, VT, I somehow felt that I was on a mini-tour of the entire state. This working farm and museum seem to combine and embody all of Vermont from several different perspectives:
1. Its history
2. Success in land and forest preservation
3. Introduction of sound farming practices
The historical personages George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Billings and his granddaughter Mary French Rockefeller and husband Laurance Spelman Rockefeller are key players that have led to the variety of Billings Farm. Marsh and Billings played key roles in emphasizing and implementing the following:
1. After cutting down forests, there is a need for systematic replenishment with new trees. These are needed for new forestry, of course, and also to prevent flooding and soil erosion.
2. For farming, safeguards are needed to prevent the erosion of fertile farm soil.
3. For farming, procedures are needed to enhance crop production, such as crop rotation, fallow use of selected land portions and plowing procedures that provide alternatives to the traditional straight up and down.
4. To promote tourism, reserve portions of public lands that can be used for camping, sightseeing and plain old exploring.
5. For dairy farming, use of scientific practices to promote milk production and efficient use of milk output in churning for butter and related offshoots of milk.
Marsh and, starting in 1871, Frederick Billings, were the two original owners of the farm. They saw the need for the above improvements in practices and vigorously promoted them all their lives. Billings, a railroad executive, read what Marsh wrote on the subject and attempted all his life to put it into practice. 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 show graphically how barren much of the Vermont landscape was. Conservation and education efforts by the above individuals helped show how systematic replanting and controlled forestry would preserve the tree population, prevent floods, rejuvenate natural beauty and landscape and, generally, work in everyone’s interest.
When touring Billings Farm, one way to start is 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. These cows need extensive provisions for hay, to last them through the long and severe Vermont winters. 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 for more specialized use, slightly higher temperatures of 240 to 245 degrees must be reached.
Apple orchards and apple picking were always 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 widely used to provide historical demonstrations. Modern saws with safety protection are used to cut ice in streams and lakes. Ice is then lifted from the water and shifted onto carriers for ice house storage.
After covering the many exhibits in the museum, there is a very enjoyable and instructive film about the Billings Farm. It includes the historical development of the entire operation, starting with the 19th century.
This can be followed by a guided tour of the 1890 Billings farm house. The structure was built as a residence for the farm manager, then viewed as a prestigious position. Many features were included in the house that were well ahead of their time, such as running water. In the basement, a mechanical device provided for automatic churning of butter on a large scale. In short, all these conveniences were aimed, even then, in making Billings Farm into a commercial operation, not just a family farm.
George Aitken was the first manager of Billings Farm, from 1890 to 1910. He took over daily management of the farm in 1890, the year that Billings died. He and subsequent managers lived in the house, across decades into the 1980s.
The farm house tour schedule includes several cooking demonstrations. These emphasize the type of traditional foods prepared on Vermont family farms. Often, the air is permeated with the smell of rhubarb pie and other staples. One gets a sense of satisfaction that earlier farm families may have enjoyed from their productivity.
For those taking a break, a dairy bar, adjoining the house, provides 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 interests of safety for all concerned, people and animals, shoes must be disinfected before entering the barn. Often, children can view newly born calves and horses.
In separate pastures, Southdown sheep are also kept on the Farm. Because of their feeding habits, sheep seem to need grass that doesn’t interfere with the types used by cows and horses.
Other structures on the Farm include a chicken barn and wagon barn. Oxen and Berkshire hogs have their own quarters.
The Farm history describes how, by 1890, it produced a very impressive 5000 pounds of butter annually. Billings Farm started a successful commercial dairy operation in the 1940s. 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. They have numerous programs to appeal to all different age levels. 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.”