Vermont: Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is the only site in the National Park System of the United States that is dedicated to an idea: that of the evolving conception of the conservation of natural resources.

Site Offices:

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

P.O. Box 178

54 Elm Street

Woodstock, VT 05091

ph: (802) 457-3368

Web site: www.nps.gov/mabi/

Billings Farm and Museum

P.O. Box 489

Route 12 and River Road

Woodstock, VT 05091

ph: (802) 457-2355

Web site: www.billingsfarm.org

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park was created from a gift of the Rockefeller family in 1992 and opened to the public in 1998. The property includes the historic home of George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Billings, and Mary French and Laurance Spelman Rockefeller. The property includes the grounds associated with the mansion and a managed forest of about six hundred acres. As the home of successive generations of Americans concerned with the conservation of natural resources, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller is the first national park dedicated to the idea of conservation. Adjacent to the park is the Billings Farm Museum, an eighty-eight-acre working farm and educational institution operated by a private, nonprofit foundation.

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh was born to a prominent family in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1801 and spent his early childhood in a family home nearby. The mansion that was to become the centerpiece of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park was built for his growing family during the period 1805 to 1807. Marsh learned to read as a young child and read with such intensity that his physician ordered him to stop reading at the age of seven, so that his eyesight might recover from the strain. During the four years that he was forbidden to read books, he learned to read the landscape, including the identification of all the native trees.

In 1820, Marsh graduated at the top of his class at Dartmouth College. He went on to practice law in Burlington, Vermont, but eventually turned his attention toward other pursuits, including raising sheep, investing in a woolen mill and railroads, and lecturing and writing on a variety of topics. He served in the Vermont legislature and in the U.S. Congress (1843-1849). In Congress, he worked for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution and against slavery and the Mexican War.

From 1849 to 1854, he served as a diplomat in Turkey and Greece. On his return to Vermont, he began to speak about the consequences of unchecked logging activity and lamented the changes in the land and water that had resulted. In 1861, he became the U.S. Minister to the Kingdom of Italy, where he would serve until shortly before his death in 1881. In 1864, he published his most influential work, Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, in which he described the relationship between humans and the natural environment. He decried the destruction of the North American landscape and promoted a new ethic of responsible stewardship. The book became an important early work in American conservation thought.

Frederick Billings

Woodstock native Frederick Billings was born in 1823 and spent his early career in the American West. He made a fortune first as a lawyer in California during the Gold Rush and later as a developer of railroads. His railroads required a constant supply of timber to replace ties, and Billings began the practice of replanting trees along the railroads as they were used in order to create a renewable supply. This was both a prudent business practice and a progressive conservation practice for the time.

On returning to Vermont in the 1860’s, Billings was alarmed to find that substantial clear-cutting had damaged the land, causing severe soil erosion and flooding. In 1869, he purchased the childhood home of George Perkins Marsh, deciding to make it a model of resource conservation. On the uplands of the property he planted selected species of trees and managed them for sustainable harvest. He opened more than twenty miles of carriage trails to make these forests accessible to the public. On the lowlands, he established a dairy farm to demonstrate responsible land stewardship. After his death in 1890, his wife Julia Billings and their three daughters continued the careful management of the entire property.

Mary and Laurance Rockefeller

In 1954, the property came into the hands of Laurance Rockefeller and Mary French Rockefeller, a granddaughter of Frederick Billings. Laurance Rockefeller’s strong interest in conservation resulted in his appointment to environmental posts by several presidents. He is known both for his vacation resorts in areas of extraordinary natural beauty and for his gifts of land to the public in many of those areas. In Woodstock, Laurance and Mary Rockefeller continued the conservation practices of Frederick Billings on both the farm and the forest, which is one of the oldest continuously managed forests in the United States. The Rockefellers also added to a collection of conservation art that includes paintings and prints by Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher B. Durand.

Visiting the Park

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is open from late spring through early autumn. More than twenty miles of carriage road are available for hiking; other uses are restricted. The houses and grounds of the park–including the collection of conservation paintings and prints– may be accessed only as part of guided tours. Separate visitors’ centers at the National Historical Park and the Billings Farm Museum provide interpretive materials and special programs. Visitors should expect to spend a half day to a full day touring the house and grounds. The park and museum offices should be contacted for information about seasonal park hours (the park is not open year- round), details of tour offerings, tour reservations (strongly recommended), and special programs.

For Further Information
  • Bridges, Peter. “The Polymath from Vermont.” Virginia Quarterly Review 75, no. 1 (1999): 82.
  • Harr, John Ensor, and Peter J. Johnson. The Rockefeller Conscience: An American Family in Public and Private. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.
  • Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Edited by David Lowenthal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • Winks, Robin W. Frederick Billings: A Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • _______. Laurance S. Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservation. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997.
Categories: History Content