The Billings Farm and Museum

Frederick Billings' model farm and dairy celebrates Vermont's rural heritage.

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Frederick Billings built this Victorian farmhouse for George Aitken, his first professional farm manager. The structure has been meticulously restored.

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When conservationist and entrepreneur Frederick Billings established his Woodstock, Vt., farm in 1871, the goal was to create a model dairy using the best scientific principals of the day. Billings imported herd-foundation stock directly from the Isle of Jersey in the British Channel and applied selective breeding techniques to enhance production numbers. The Billings farm flourished, and today provides a gateway to celebrating Vermont's rural heritage.

"The farm is still one of the best Jersey farms in America," says Susan Plump, Billings Farm and Museum public relations assistant. "Most of our milk goes into making cheese." Champion-lined ancestors to Frederick's first cows supply the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, which produces some of the finest aged cheddars in the country, but it wasn't always about cheese at this farm. "In the early years, they used most of the milk to produce butter," says museum curator Robert Benz, "but it was a diversified operation and also included sheep and hogs."

As a conservationist, Frederick Billings was concerned with the rampant deforestation of the Woodstock area and was keenly aware that in northern New England, especially, sustainable agricultural practices and careful forest management were necessary to preserve fragile soils and surface water quality. Implementing ideas proposed by George Perkins Marsh, a noted conservationist and the land's previous owner, Billings planted more than 10,000 trees in the Woodstock area and created a gravity-fed water system providing clean pressurized water for the operation.

The Billings Farm and Museum was first opened to the public in 1983. It now features hands-on farm experiences, barns full of agricultural artifacts and a restored 1890 farm manager's home with attached creamery, in addition to the award-winning cattle.

A year on the farm

Ever wonder what life was like on a New England farm in 1890? Step through the doors of one of the Billings barns and view a compelling series of exhibits depicting every significant farm task from that time and place. Stroll through the old barn and discover beautifully preserved artifacts, vintage photographs and multi-media presentations as engaging as they are educational.

"The Vermont Farm Year in 1890" walks the visitor through the fundamentals of preparing the soil, planting the seed, cultivation and harvest. In one exhibit, a farmer is seen placing a large stone onto a rock wall. Tools of his trade, and those he might use to build wire or board fence, are nearby. In other areas, tools and activities associated with timbering, making butter, cheese, cider and ice are realistically presented. In several fascinating exhibits, maple sugaring is shown in such a way as to provide regional history in addition to displaying an awesome array of tools. Aged wooden sap buckets are on display next to a panel loaded with wooden and metal tree taps of every size and shape.

A year on the farm wasn't only about work. The museum includes a beautifully authentic general store. Other exhibits celebrate the one-room schoolhouse, the farmhouse kitchen and the spiritual and social importance of going to meeting on Sunday. Another offers a glimpse of what the noontime scene was like when women carried lunch out to men working in the field, and made a fine picnic of it. "We wanted the farm year exhibit to offer a broader view of rural life in that time period," Susan explains. "People worked hard, but they also attended the town meeting, worshipped, visited and had some fun."

Farm manager's house

In 1884, Frederick Billings hired George Aitken to take over day-to-day farm management. George was an experienced and progressive manager comfortable with the farm's goals of using scientific methodology to improve the herd. He was also sympathetic to Billings' idea that the farm could truly make important contributions to agriculture by proving and showcasing new technologies.

In 1889, Billings began construction of a building addition that included a business office for the farm manager with separate entrance, an apartment for the manager and his family, a creamery and adjacent icehouse. "Mr. Billings felt the model farm needed a model farmhouse," Bob Benz says, smiling as he opens the door to a fully functional bathroom. "Indoor plumbing was part of the deal."

Aitken and his family lived and worked in that house from 1890 to his death in 1910. The house served as a residence for Billings farm managers and staff into the 1980s. In 1987, Bob spearheaded the house's complete restoration. Using original receipts, scientific paint and fabric analysis, 19th century trade journals and structural forensics, he and his team brought the house back to its former glory. Through similar painstaking research, he reconstructed the creamery (decommissioned in the 1930s) right down to the engine that powered the big Davis swing churn.

Restoring an 1890 creamery

In the late 1800s, butter was the Billings farm's principal commodity. The farm produced about 5,000 pounds of it in peak years. Located in the walkout lower level of the farm manager's house, the creamery consists of two fairly small rooms. The first room, closest to the barn, is where milk was delivered and transferred into special separator cans that were then immersed in ice water-laden Cooley creamers. Once sufficient time had passed for the cream to rise, the cans were raised out of the ice water, and the skim milk was drained into a galvanized metal gutter that delivered it to the slop bucket.

The cream was then transferred into a water-jacketed Vermont Machine Co. 50-gallon tempering vat, brought to a temperature of about 60 degrees and held for several hours. That caused a slight souring response that imparted a then-desirable tang to the butter. Once enough warm and partially sour cream had been collected (about 50 gallons) it was transferred to a Vermont Machine Co. No. 8 Davis swing butter churn suspended by wrought hooks from the ceiling. The churn was powered with a pitman connected through a line shaft eccentric to a small water engine driven by water piped from the farm's pond up on the hill.

Once the butterfat coalesced, a ceiling-mounted winch was used to tilt the churn, draining the buttermilk away. In the adjacent room, the butter was worked to remove all remaining traces of liquid, salted, pressed into blocks, wrapped and held on ice. Billings Farm butter was shipped as far away as Philadelphia, New York City and even Europe.

Although the creamery had long since been removed by the time Bob was faced with recreating it, careful deconstruction revealed wear patterns on the concrete floor, mounting scars on beams, floor drain locations and even plumbing routes. That information, coupled with detailed and dated receipts describing all of the equipment, allowed the butter-making facility to be rebuilt as it was originally. A few pieces had to be made from scratch.

"The invoice specified an unpainted Davis swing churn and we couldn't find the right size anywhere," Bob says. "So we built one." Bob says the churn wasn't too hard to get right, although patterns had to be made so new hardware could be cast. He also made a pair of wood planes with curved soles and irons that matched the inside and outside radius of the churn's end staves. "You need the planes to shape the ends properly," he explains. The churn isn't the only made-from-scratch piece in the creamery. Bob and his crew also had to build one Cooley creamer from scratch, which included taking painstaking measurements, making patterns for castings and having new cream cans made complete with spun tops.

Aiming for education

The 1890 farmhouse isn't just an authentically restored Victorian building, any more than its creamery is just an exhibit. "We're interested in letting people experience farm life in the late 19th century," Bob says, noting that there are few roped-off areas at the Billings farm. "We want our visitors to be participants, not spectators." The 1890 farmhouse is now a multi-faceted educational facility that allows visitors to examine and experience farm life.

The farm's "Time Travel Tuesdays" program, which invites children and adults to experience 1890s farm life firsthand, is a good example of the emphasis on education. Visitors might pitch in at the kitchen's wood-fired cook stove to help prepare a seasonally appropriate noon meal. They might do bookkeeping in the office, or even work the churn to produce butter. Once the work is finished, it's off to the sitting room, where visitors enjoy rounds of tiddlywinks and dominos, gaze through stereoscopes or engage in a little needlework.

Other examples of the Billings Farm and Museum's extensive educational program include a competitive plowing match, where teamsters converge and put their horses and oxen to the test. Visitors can try their hand at plowing with the Billings team, or they can just take it all in and top it off with a wagon ride. On Sheep Shearing Weekend, folks take part in springtime fleecing and wool processing activities. During the colder months, weekend programs include cider pressing, corn shelling, grain threshing, sledding, sleigh riding and holiday celebrations.

Keeping history alive

Successfully combining a working farm with an experiential museum requires hard work and cooperation. It also takes strong leadership, and people with a dream. In the case of the Billings Farm and Museum, leadership and substantial financial backing came from Frederick Billings' granddaughter, Mary French Rockefeller, and her husband, Laurence Spelman Rockefeller, who together established the Woodstock Foundation, which owns and operates the Billings Farm and Museum today.

Since opening to the public, the Billings Farm and Museum has hosted more than a million visitors and 100,000 school children. The facility has provided on-site curriculum for college students studying museum science and includes special programs for home-schooled and preschool children. "Our visitors tell us our programs are great," Woodstock Foundation President David A. Donath writes in the 2005 annual report. "But we're working hard to make them better." With that kind of commitment, the Billings Farm and Museum will keep New England's rich agrarian past well-churned for generations to come.  FC 

For more information:
- The Billings Farm and Museum, P.O. Box 489, Woodstock, VT 05091; (802) 457-2355; www.billingsfarm.org 

Oscar 'Hank' Will III is Editor-inChief of GRIT magazine. Contact him at hwill@grit.com