The Rockefeller Legacy
Conservation & Philanthropy
The following edited material is quoted from:
Cultural Landscape Report for the Mansion Grounds
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
Volume I: Site History
(Material in italics is quoted from Peter S. Jennison’s, History of Woodstock)
Laurance S. Rockefeller (1910-2004) was born in New York City, the fourth of six children of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Growing up in one of the most prominent and influential families in the nation, Laurance was exposed to a wide variety of places and ideas that were instrumental in developing a strong conservation ethic. The family’s several homes were located in or near places where major conservation projects were located, including Central Park in New York City, Palisades Interstate Park in the Hudson Valley, Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine, and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., imparted to his children a deep regard for landscape beauty, history, and public parks. From Abby, the children learned a sense of duty to society, respect for community, interest in nature, and appreciation of art, including modern art. Laurance’s background was not unlike that of his future wife. Mary French (1910-1997), granddaughter of Frederick Billings, inherited the Billings family conservation ethic embracing a respect for nature, appreciation of landscape beauty, and service to community, with an overarching religious reverence.
“It is impossible to assess Woodstock’s present and future without an appraisal of Laurance S. Rockefeller’s benign presence and catalytic influence. By one of the rarest coincidences in Vermont’s history, he occupies a pivotal place in Woodstock as Mary Rockefeller’s grandfather, Frederick Billings, did a hundred years ago.”
Conservation & Preservation
National Historic Landmark
In March 1954, Mary French Rockefeller and her husband, Laurance S. Rockefeller, became the third generation of the Billings family to care for the Mansion grounds.
For Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, 1967 was, in a sense, a watershed, a year when they realized that Woodstock meant far more to them than an agreeable haven for holiday family gatherings in her grandfather Frederick Billing’s big house on the hill, which, in June of that year, had been designated by Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson as a National Landmark, honoring George Perkins Marsh.
The First Lady’s visit was a milestone, not only for the town, “but even more so for Laurance,” according to M. Frederick Smith, his long-time associate in the conservation movement. “He may not, himself, have fully recognized its significance at the time. But it left an indelible impression….
“Two years later, President Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with this citation: ‘Laurance S. Rockefeller, citizen, philanthropist, and conservation leader, has with extraordinary vision and leadership, focused the sights of his countrymen on the quality of their physical environment—not just for today, but for countless tomorrows. Quiet, patient, and persistent servant of the people, he has recalled the wilderness and enriched the landscape and the lives of people. He is a worthy member of a worthy family which has set an example for public service to the country.’ The award, dated January 20, 1969, was one of Johnson’s last official acts.”
The second major entity that LSR created following the landmark designation of the Mansion was The Woodstock Foundation, Inc. Established in 1968, the Foundation was chartered “to preserve and enhance the physical, cultural, and spiritual environment of the people of the State of Vermont, and of the United States of America, and primarily of the Town of Woodstock and the area comprising the watershed of the Ottauquechee Valley.” In subsequent years, the Woodstock Foundation and the Woodstock Inn & Resort would fund and direct various physical improvements, planning studies, and institutions in the region. These included the acquisition of historic properties and open spaces for preservation and conservation; the burying of overhead utility lines through the village and leading up to the Mansion; and the publication of a history of Woodstock’s second century as a companion to the history by Henry Swan Dana that Frederick Billings had commissioned. From the 1970s onward, the Woodstock Foundation would also focus much of its effort on preserving the Billings Estate and establishing its place in Vermont’s cultural scene and Woodstock’s tourism industry.
Billings Farm, Inc.
In the late 1960s, as he was acquiring and redeveloping the Woodstock Inn, LSR began to frame a vision for the preservation and development of the old Billings Estate, including the Mansion, the forest, and the farm. In the early 1970s an opportunity emerged with the decline of Billings Farm, Inc. as a profitable agricultural operation. The shareholders (all Billing’s descendants including Mary Rockefeller) agreed to sell the corporation to Laurance Rockefeller in 1974, including the main farm on the Ottauquechee interval and the forest on Mt. Tom. The purchase thus brought much of the historic core of Frederick Billing’s estate into Mary and Laurance Rockefeller’s ownership. With this land, the Rockefellers hoped to implement their most valued conservation-stewardship objectives. Through the Woodstock Foundation, Inc., and as part of their broad involvement in Woodstock, the Rockefellers hoped to preserve the Billings Estate and perpetuate the Billings family heritage in the community for future generations. LSR elaborated on this vision at the Foundation’s 1977 annual meeting:
My long-range goal is to eventually include the Mansion, the Farm and related facilities, and the forests as an integrated unit to the approximate scope and extent that it existed during the time of Frederick Billings. Other properties that I have bought will supplement the family properties, and help protect the larger Woodstock area from deterioration through unwise development.
Primary objectives of the Foundation will be the preservation of open space; the preservation of the family farm and related historical values (under the family name); expansion of the outdoor recreational opportunities inherent in the Woodstock area because of its great natural beauty; the encouragement and practice of the best practices of forest management; the study of ecological methods of harnessing natural resources to achieve energy without pollution or depletion of our non-renewable resources; and the creation of broad educational values related to the above areas of interest, many of which will hopefully benefit the farmers of Vermont in the future…
I anticipate that our hopes and plans will evolve over a period of many years. I am hopeful that with the help of the family, we will add to the balance of Woodstock, and have a beneficial effect on the long-term economic vitality and stability of the community.
One of LSR’s first projects following his purchase of Billings Farm, Inc. was to improve the farm operation, carrying forward its historic role as a model of Vermont agriculture. Laurance and Mary had hoped that the farm would become a vehicle for the preservation of Vermont’s rural heritage and serve as an effective tool for public education in agriculture, conservation, and history.
Even before LSR’s purchase of the farm, the Woodstock Foundation took the first step toward these educational goals. In 1972 it initiated the Vermont Folklife Research Project, a research and collecting effort to study and preserve vanishing remnants of traditional farm life in East Central Vermont. The project was housed in the Carriage Barn (Stable) on the Mansion grounds from 1977 to 1983. Early in the course of the project, the Foundation set the goal of establishing a permanent museum.
Billings Farm & Museum
Opened in 1983, the Billings Farm & Museum supplanted the folklife research project and it soon became a major attraction in Woodstock for local visitors, school children, and tourists alike.
In the late 1980s the museum restored the farm manager’s house to its original 1890 appearance as a living-history facility for interpretation of the era of Frederick Billings. Soon after, LSR gifted the farm property and operation to the Woodstock Foundation, which led to the merger of the farm with the museum and full development of the farm’s educational mission.
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park
Following the opening of the Billings Farm & Museum, the Rockefellers explored a number of alternatives for preserving the Mansion grounds and Mt. Tom forest and opening them to the public. Ultimately, they determined to donate these properties to the people of the United States for creation of a national park. This vision came to fruition with the establishment in 1992 of Marsh-Billings National Historical Park, later to be renamed Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Early in January 1993, Mary and Laurance Rockefeller delivered deeds to the Mansion grounds and forest to Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan. The Rockefellers retained a right of life estate in the property, and they pledged a gift of the Mansion contents upon the conclusion of their tenancy. LSR also pledged an endowment fund that would be held by the Woodstock Foundation for the purposes of preservation and conservation maintenance of the Mansion grounds and forest. He gave scenic easements to help preserve the park’s viewshed. In addition, he pledged a fund for the community of Woodstock to offset the effect of the removal of park property from the tax rolls. Altogether, the value of the Rockefeller’s gift to the people of the United States amounted to $21.4 million.
Woodstock Hotel Company/Woodstock Inn & Resort
The resort would serve as an economic anchor to sustain and lead the area’s growing tourism and four-season recreation industry. The centerpiece would be the Woodstock Inn, a resort hotel on the village green, which formerly had been the center of Woodstock’s railroad-based tourism and country place society. By the mid-1960s the old 1892 inn was in disrepair and financial trouble, and in 1967 it was determined that saving the old building was not feasible. Amid speculation about whether a supermarket or some other new development might replace the inn in its prominent location, LSR stepped in. He acquired the old inn, and following a gala final ball that Mary and he hosted, he demolished it and replaced it with a new building. Begun in July 1968, the large but understated ColonialRevival-style inn was set back on its site on the Green. The site was designed by Bryan J. Lynch, a landscape architect who had assisted LSR in developing his other resorts.
Middle Covered Bridge
In 1969, the iron bridge located across the Green was condemned and replaced. Milton Graton was hired to build the bridge in the traditional way using peg-framed construction.
In 1960 and 1961 he acquired and improved the Mt. Tom and Suicide Six ski areas, both located a short distance north of the Mansion, and the Woodstock Country Club on the south side of the village. Together, these three properties formed the recreational core of what by the end of the 1960s became the Woodstock Inn & Resort.
Woodstock Country Club
By 1961, the Club needed a transfusion of modernization. Accordingly, the managers turned to one of its members, the man who had just improved the Mt. Tom Ski Area and announced the purchase of Suicide Six, and in March the stockholders voted to sell the golf course and club house to a new corporation being organized for that purpose by Laurance S. Rockefeller. “This sale is one step in a program initiated by Mr. Rockefeller for substantial improvements to the golf course and related facilities,” the Standard reported. “Robert Trent Jones, the well-known golf course architect, has been retained to design an improved and safer layout for the course. Certain land to the south of the present 14th hole has been acquired by Mr. Rockefeller. It will be incorporated in the new layout. In addition, the clubhouse is to be renovated and the tennis courts done over.”
Rockefeller began improving the local ski areas in 1960-61, when he replaced the rope tow on Mt. Tom with a 2000-foot Poma lift with a four hundred-foot rise, installed snow-making equipment, built a base lodge and a hundred-car parking lot, and hired as resident manager Claude Gaudin. The Mt. Tom area was intended primarily for families.
“The town’s pleasure in the new Mt. Tom facilities was expressed over the New Year’s weekend when two children presented a “Key to Woodstock” to Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller, with a written tribute (“To Laurance S. Rockefeller we here present the key to Woodstock in grateful appreciation of his interest and efforts in the promotion of skiing in our village”), to which was attached five pages of signatures.”
Rockefeller purchased Suicide Six in 1961 from Bunny Bertram. Bertram lived long enough to admire the new base lodge at Suicide Six, opened for the 1978-79 season. Designed by Banwell, White and Arnold, of Hanover, New Hampshire, the dramatic, 10,000-square-foot lodge, on one floor with a glass wall opening directly on the sheer drop of the Face slope, featured butternut and basswood handpicked by John Wiggin, the Resort’s forester, from its own woodlots. The $400,000 lodge was part of a $1 million, four-year improvement project that included a new double-chair lift and additional snow-making equipment, increasing Six’s capacity from seven hundred fifty to 1100 skiers.