The Webb-Vanderbilt Legacy

Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on April 1, 2001

When Dr. William Seward Webb came to Vermont in 1880, he was looking to buy train companies for the Vanderbilt railroad empire. Instead, his eyes were captured by the vistas of Lake Champlain and the distant Adirondacks across the lake.

So began an exceptional marriage between the wealthy Webb-Vanderbilt family and the town of Shelburne, founded in 1763 in the fertile Champlain valley.

Within a year, Webb returned with his new wife Lila Vanderbilt to build a spacious summer cottage thereand to found a legacy. Today, the familys imprint remains stamped on this community south of Burlington, Vermonts largest city. The two Webb-Vanderbilt properties, Shelburne Farms and Shelburne Museum, preserve the era around 1900The Gilded Ageand a timeless collection of Americana.

Shelburne today is a diverse town of some 6,700 people. As with many towns, its gradually been losing its rural flavor, says Susan Davis, editor of the local weekly, Shelburne News, as sprawl creeps down from Burlington. But Shelburne Farms 1,400-acre working farm ensures residents will always be tied to the communitys historic roots, she says.

The farm and museum are bookends to Shelburne Village, the location of a country store opened in 1869 and still filled with penny candy (inflation-adjusted to 10-15 cents), a couple of popular local eateries, craft and antique stores, and handsome churches. Along the shore is the Shelburne shipyard, where Shelburne Museums most famous exhibit was builtthe 220-foot paddle wheeler Ticonderogawhich once plied the waters of Lake Champlain.

Alec Webb, the great-grandson of William Seward Webb, says the familys risky decision in 1972 to preserve the farm to promote land stewardship and agriculture is a happy ironyprivate property for the wealthy turned into a public resource. Webb has been executive director of the nonprofit that runs Shelburne Farms since 1988, assisted by another great-grandson, Marshall Webb.

The farm maintains close ties with the community. Residents use the trails to walk, ski, or snowshoe, and school children participate in farm programs.

Thats one of the things we feel really proud of, Webb says. Cobbled together from more than 30 farms with six miles of lake frontage, Shelburne Farms was envisioned as a model for modern agriculture. Dr. Webb hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New Yorks Central Park, to design the landscape, together with noted forester Gifford Pinchot. Olmsted built a five-story wood and stone barn, the largest in America, big enough to house 300 horses, as well as a beautiful coach barn and the 1899 mansion that was his homeand the grounds are stunning.

By the 1930s, economic hard times unraveled Webbs dreams, but Shelburne Farms hews remarkably close to his vision. It maintains an organic dairy farm and makes award-winning Shelburne Farms cheddar, has an organic bakery, a kids farmyard, and sponsors events such as a fall Harvest Festival. Guided tours allow the public to see the buildings and grounds. The Webbs 100-room mansion, built in 1899, operates as an inn and hosts Vermont Mozart Festival concerts in lakeside settings.

Just beyond the village, an 1845 covered bridge leads to another world entirely, the collection of collections that was the quirky life work of Electra Havemeyer and her husband, James Watson Webb, William Webbs son.

Begun in 1947 on eight acres, the Shelburne Museum now wanders over 45 acres with 37 historic exhibition buildings, ranging from a round barn and sawmill to a working blacksmith shop and historic lighthouse. Family artifacts include Webbs carriage collection and paintings by Degas, Monet, and Manet, as well as American masters, owned by the Havemeyers. The eclectic exhibits go from quilts to scrimshaw, dolls, and Shaker furniture.

More than 100,000 visitors a year tour this amazing place. The museum also works with the local school, and kids grow up feeling its part of their back yard.

Whether collecting land, or even entire buildings, the Webb familys vision has done more than just define this townit has preserved a piece of American heritage for future generations.