Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont is a complicated park with a complicated name and a complicated history. But the lesson is simple: Conservation!
The park preserves the birthplace of George Perkins Marsh who was one of the nation's first conservationists. It was purchased by Frederick Billings and passed down to his granddaughter who married into the Rockefeller family. That family gave it to the National Park Service and the park, Vermont's only National Park, was created in 1992.
What's truly remarkable about the park is that is teaches the lesson of conservation to visitors in a way that makes it real and tangible.
To be honest, I think the kids arrived intent only on getting another Junior Ranger badge. Amy and I didn't really know what to expect. Until we searched for National Parks in Vermont we had no idea MBR (as my tired fingers shall refer to it) even existed.
After climbing up the small hill from the Billings Farm and Museum across the road we stepped back in time. The mansion sits on the hill surrounded by outbuildings and gardens. The visitor center is in the old Carriage Barn and helped us understand how Marsh, Billings, and Rockefeller had all helped develop and advance the cause of conservation in the United States and around the world.
As a child, Marsh had seen the desecration of Mount Tom behind the mansion. With the trees cut for short-term gain, the topsoil was lost and the mountainside eroded. Streams died and the land became less fertile. He put all this together in Man and Nature (Amazon.com affiliate links help support moosefish.com.) This book helped shape the way people came to understand their impact of their actions on the land.
Billings grew up in Vermont, but fell in love with the land in California among the sequoias and in Yosemite Valley. He championed creation of national parks in the west before returning to Vermont and buying the old Marsh estate. He used his wealth (from the California gold rush) and reforested Mount Tom and helped local farmers develop sustainable practices.
Billings worked for Northern Pacific Railroad and promoted the west for tourism. He believed that by showing people the incredible beauty of the land they would help protect it. This is one of the reasons I write about the special places I get to experience through my adventures so his thinking really resonated with me.
Billings' granddaughter, Mary French, and her husband, Laurance Rockefeller inherited the farm in the 1950s. Rockefeller came from a long line of philanthropists and conservationists and continued the tradition. He also believed that public access would improve conservation and was responsible for creation of Virgin Islands National Park. (I bet Amy'd love that one.) More than 550 acres of Mount Tom and the residential parts of the estate were donated to make the park in the 1990s.
As usual, we followed the Junior Ranger guide to learn about the park and find out what there is to see and do. From the very start, it was a different kind of experience. The kids were asked to write out their full names for the ranger (the skeptic in me wondered when we'd start getting junk mail) and then we headed out into the park. The grounds are well kept, but not manicured away from the mansion and the Belvedere.
Pro-tip: Whenever a mansion's outbuilding has a name like, "The Belvedere" you know it's going to be spectacular. We weren't there for one of the tours that are offered in the summer and fall so we didn't get to go inside, but just looking at the building and pool made it clear it was something special.
The Junior Ranger loop was open so we followed along answering questions about the trees, composting, solar power, and how nature made us feel. None of these questions were new to us, but the kids definitely connected more concretely than when I ask them to identify trees while we're out hiking.
Back at the visitor center the kids turned in their booklets and were rewarded not only with the usual badge, but also with certificates printed with their names! To top it off, the ranger let them put their fingers on her actual ranger hat while they made their Junior Ranger promise.
Since we didn't get a chance to hike the miles of trails on Mount Tom and the rest of the property we'll definitely stop in again next time we're in Vermont. The kids will be older and they'll learn different lessons from the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller story. And you can bet we'll take advantage of the tours of the mansion and The Belvedere.
Pro-tip for the lactose-tolerant: Buy the cheese in the Farm's gift shop. It's super tasty.