Vermont’s Mountain Village

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 31, 2002

To stroll along Manchester’s marble sidewalks is to walk into and through history—both of Vermont and of the nation. Steeped in tradition, the older part of the village recalls the quiet, tree-lined streets of an America we’ve come to cherish.

In a valley ringed by Vermont’s rugged Green Mountains, landmarks such as the First Congregational Church’s clapboard steeple and The Equinox Resort & Spa’s sprawling wedding cake of a hotel vie for the second glances they’ve received for generations. Even the village sidewalks—marble salvaged from Manchester’s once prosperous mills—lend a sense of permanence and solidity to the town.

But Manchester (which includes the adjacent—and newer—Manchester Center in its 4,180 population) is not just about scenery or history, although there’s plenty of both in this pre-Revolutionary setting. It’s about people. Local historian Mary Hard Bort, former curator, past president, and now member of the board of the Manchester Historical Society, embodies the village’s spirit of independence and volunteerism.

Born in Manchester, Bort traveled with her husband and their “Army family” for 31 years before returning home to Vermont in 1975. “I missed the mountains terribly when I was away,” Bort says.

More than that, Bort says she missed a way of life and a sense of community. That sense of community was tested soon after she returned when a historic village property changed hands with the death of its owner, a direct descendent of Abraham Lincoln. It was then that Bort and a band of like-minded residents formed the Friends of Hildene: a group credited with saving the summer estate of President Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, from being taken over by developers. Today, Hildene’s 412-acre grounds and mansion serve as an educational resource for the village.

Hildene’s rooms, filled with Lincoln family artifacts (including one of the 16th president’s stovepipe hats), are open for tours from mid-May through October. Its landscaped estate—a popular setting for weddings, as well as for annual fund-raisers such as Hildene’s antique and classic car show and its June garden party—swells with visitors during spring and summer. Year-round volunteers keep Hildene operating smoothly.

“We didn’t have a particular vision for Hildene at the time,” Bort says, thinking back to the Friends’ formation. “But it’s brought people here in a different way than before. And they leave with a history they might not have had otherwise.”

Hildene’s Deputy Director Beth Jerman agrees. Hildene, she says, benefits from the expertise of more than 360 volunteers from all walks of life. “I have a retired vascular surgeon who helps out in the visitors’ center,” says Jerman, pointing out residents’ willingness to “give back” to the community.

Chris Sprague contributes however she can to the community she and husband Ted adopted when they became the proprietors of the Inn at Ormsby Hill seven years ago. As a committee member of the Breast Cancer Foundation’s Local Race for the Cure, she’s had an opportunity to witness Manchester residents’ generosity firsthand. And, as an innkeeper, she donates to various fund-raisers—such as the potluck supper the town hosts each December to benefit the Manchester Food Cupboard.

Like other Manchester properties, the Inn at Ormsby Hill is redolent with the past. The 1764 Federal-style house was once home to Robert Todd Lincoln’s law partner, Edward Isham. Visits to Isham’s home, says Sprague, inspired the young Lincoln to build his adjacent home, Hildene.

The 1811 House also has a Lincoln “connection.” The inn was once the home of President Lincoln’s granddaughter, Mary Lincoln Isham. Today, owners Bruce and Marnie Duff lovingly maintain the house and its seven acres, filled with peonies Isham planted more than 80 years ago.

Respect for the town’s past spills over into retailing as well. The Orvis Store, founded in 1856 and the oldest continuous mail-order company in the country, operates out of a Colonial-era building. Even Manchester Center’s string of luxury outlet stores—billed as the “Fifth Avenue of the Mountains”—blends with the village’s historical surroundings.

In Manchester, there’s little doubt about the village’s identity. In this town, history is a way of life.