The Cottager: Take a tour of Robert Todd Lincoln's home, Hildene

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"If only they knew, they wouldn't want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present."

Though the words are often attributed to Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest and only surviving son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, there is no proof he actually spoke them. The quote, however, could have been uttered by him, as he was surrounded by death his entire life and was at the bedside of three presidents who would die from the wounds of their assassins.

Robert would turn down an invitation to attend Ford's Theatre with his parents on April 14, 1865, the night John Wilkes Booth would make his move on the president. Hours after Booth fired his revolver, Robert was at this father's bedside in the Peterson house and was present the next morning when his father passed.

On July 2, 1881, Robert Todd Lincoln, then U.S. Secretary of War, traveled to Washington, D.C.'s Baltimore and Potomac train station, where President James Garfield was preparing to leave on a trip to New England. Lincoln, who was invited to accompany him, was there to say he would and that his family would follow the next day. He was just 40 feet away when Charles Guiteau approached from behind and shot Garfield twice. Lincoln took charge of the scene. Garfield would die 80 days later from his wounds.

In 1901, Lincoln, then president of the Pullman Co., stopped in Buffalo, N.Y., at the invitation of President William McKinley, to attend the Pan American Exposition. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by a Pullman porter with a note informing him the president had been shot twice in the abdomen by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Lincoln would see McKinley two days later before leaving for Chicago. The president was thought to be on the mend, but would die from infection.

Although he was good friends with President William Howard Taft, their meetings took place after Taft was on the U.S. Supreme Court, and did not end in disaster. However, on May 30, 1922, Lincoln, an invited guest, shared the stage with President Warren G. Harding during the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial. Fourteen months later Harding died during a speaking tour — from a heart attack, not an assassin's bullet.

Some would say Robert Todd Lincoln was cursed. Others mark it as coincidence. Still many more see the man as a survivor of many tragedies.

But there were many bright times in his life too. Many took place at his summer home, Hildene, in Manchester, Vt.

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Robert Todd Lincoln first visited Manchester at the age of 20 when he accompanied his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, and younger brother Tad. The Lincolns stayed two weeks at The Equinox, escaping the summer heat in Washington D.C.

In 1902, he purchased 412 acres and began plans for the 24-room, 8,000-square-foot Georgian Revival summer home he would name Hildene. He and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, would gather there with their children and grandchildren.

When in town, he would spend his afternoons golfing at the Ekwanok Country Club, of which he was president, and took daily drives through town. He also served as a trustee of the Mark Skinner Library for several years.

The house remained in the family until 1975 when his granddaughter, Mary "Peggy" Beckwith, died. The estate, as stipulated in her grandmother's will, passed to the Christian Science Church. The church sold it in 1978 to the Friends of Hildene, which has maintained it as a memorial to the Lincoln Family.

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Umbrellas rustle as their owners snap them shut as they gather, out of the rain, beneath the porte-cochere of Hildene, where we wait to enter the house for a self-guided tour. A sign prompts us to gather here, as it's the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and a steady stream of tourists has found its way to the Lincoln family home. Groups are being let in every 15 minutes.

As the appointed time approaches, a docent appears, sharing a few facts with us before we enter.

Our temporary guide then warns this is not an opulent house like others from the time period. Make no mistake, although this home doesn't have fancy chandeliers or gilded ceilings, the markings of a Gilded Age home are here. Lincoln might not have thrown money to the wind like a Vanderbilt or Astor, as evidenced in the wood paneling made to look like mahogany, but he also was a man who was a generation away from a being born in a one-room log cabin.

A very formal entry way brings you into great hall, where an intricately carved, multi-spindaled stairwell leads to the second floor. In the great hall, we part ways with our momentary guide, but not before we listen to a tune played on the house's Aeolian Pipe Organ. The 1,000 pipe organ was installed in 1908, a gift from Robert to Mary, and has 242 rolls of music. Today, the musical instructions are given by a digitized catalog, but the outcome is still the same. Music fills the entire house when played.

Filled with the family's furniture, we are able to see the home as it was during the time Robert and Mary inhabited it.

We leave the house and stop by the formal garden, where 1,000 peonies planted over 100 years ago are waiting to bloom. Before leaving, we visit the 1903 Pullman Sunbeam railroad car on the property, which is an extra treat. We choose not to tarry too long, as other adventures await and we know that we are want to visit again.

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com.


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