The Billings Farm and Museum

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

| November 2006

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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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    James Aitken took over management of the Billings farm after his brother, George, died in 1910. He is shown here in the group at right, walking the hay ground behind the 1890 manager's house with his sister, Marion Holt, and Tommy and Peggy Brooks.
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    The Billings Farm and Museum is beautifully situated in a valley on the outskirts of Woodstock, Vt. The dairy barn is located directly behind the recently rebuilt wood-slat silos, and the chicken and wagon barns are to the left.
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    Although it does employ a cast shelling plate, this corn sheller is unusual because the plate doesn't rotate to remove kernels from the cob. Instead, one would rub the ear corn against the plate with the help of the wooden paddle.
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    Farmers in Vermont needed fences every bit as much as they needed ways to store the annual crop of rocks and boulders harvested from their fields. Here, the art of dry stacking is illustrated.
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    A 19th century winnowing tray (complete with bentwood handles mortised into the edges) was once used to clean threshed grain by tossing the grain into the air and relying on the breeze to carry off the chaff.
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    Before butter was marketed and sometimes even before it was served, it was molded into loaves adorned with designs that often served as trademarks. This hand-carved mold design is typical of those on display at the museum.
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    Museum curator Robert Benz monitors flow to the water motor that drives this Davis swing churn. The motor, barely visible behind the churn, powers the overhead line shaft using head pressure obtained from a reservoir up the mountain from the creamery.
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    In the 1890s, milk was delivered directly to the Billings farm creamery, where it was poured into separator cans and lowered into an ice bath in the Cooley creamer. Today the farm has two such chillers. The original (right) is never used; the hand-fabricated version along the back wall is fully functional. Once the milk was cool and the cream had risen to the top of the cans, the skim milk was drained into the gutter system (visible at the edge of the cooler on the right) and the cream was transferred into the Vermont Farm Machine Co. 50-gallon tempering vat (center).
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    The Billings farm's lane is a major animal thoroughfare since the traditional track still connects the barn with pastures and paddocks. Walking it makes a fine addition to any visit.
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    Museum interpreter Michael Levengood introduces these youngsters to one of his flock as part of the Billings Farm and Museum's "Check Out Chickens" program.
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    Detail of the Backus Water Motor Co. engine used to run the creamery's Davis swing churn. High-pressure water delivered from a pond several hundred feet up the mountain flows into an enclosed water wheel, causing the wheel to turn, and drains out the bottom center.
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    Once butterfat has coalesced, the remaining fluid is poured off, but the butter isn't finished yet. It has to be worked to remove any remaining milk, which improves its flavor and postpones spoiling.
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    Assistant Farm Manager Chris Burnes (wearing a blue hat) makes a class of the afternoon milking chores.

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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.