Billings and Kittredge collected and preserved 1,128
plants, in a collection known to botanists as an herbarium, a
WOODSTOCK - Many Vermonters know that Vermont environmentalism
began here, on the slopes of Mount Tom.
They most likely know the story of how George Perkins Marsh grew
up in the shadow of the little mountain in the early 19th century
and learned fundamental environmental lessons there that later
inspired his 1864 classic, "Man and Nature," the first work of
They may know also how Frederick Billings, a Woodstock native who
became rich as a western railroad lawyer, returned to his hometown,
bought the Marsh homestead and planted trees on and around Mount
Tom. Billings hoped to inspire Vermonters to adopt the then-new
science of forestry, to salvage the ravaged hillsides of their
state and revitalize their economy.
But very few know how the vision of Marsh and Billings was
nurtured and continued by four remarkable women: his wife and
daughters. After Fredrick's death, his widow, Julia Billings and
her daughters, Elizabeth, Laura, and Mary, worked to carry on his
enlightened farm and forestry work. Nor do most know of the
astounding botanical project that Elizabeth Billings undertook with
her friend and mentor, the professional botanist Elsie
That project - carried on for more than 30 years by the two women
- is as stunning in scope today as it was a century ago: It was to
catalogue and classify all the wild plants within a six-mile radius
Ultimately, Billings and Kittredge collected and preserved 1,128
plant specimens, in a collection known to botanists as an
herbarium. That collection, regarded as a priceless
snapshot-in-time of the flora of the Woodstock area, was recently
acquired by the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller (MBR) National Park,
where it will reside for the future as a resource for botanists and
Kittredge, when asked once when the project would be completed,
had a succinct reply: "Never," she said. The comment was deeply
accurate, because the flora of Vermont was changing, even as the
two women collected their specimens around Woodstock. It continues
to change and evolve in our own time.
Today, the little mountain, the rolling hills around it, the brick
mansion and other buildings at its base, are conserved as the
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. It is a deeply
layered historical landscape, a place with many stories to tell,
where both nature and the past are conserved as part of an ongoing
One of those stories focuses on Frederick Billings' daughter,
Elizabeth, who began collecting plants in the late 19th century, as
a young woman.
She had a special interest in native grasses and also collected
early wildflowers. Once, challenged by a friend, she followed the
example of her father and planted trees on nearby Mount Peg, thus
beginning its reforestation.
Billings had begun collecting plants on her own. By 1917, she had
collected and preserved about 200 specimens, and come up with the
idea of creating a "flora of Woodstock," - a collection of all the
non-cultivated plants within a six mile radius of the Woodstock
Realizing that she needed expert help with such a large and
difficult project, she contacted the New York Botanical Garden,
which responded by sending one of their best to Woodstock,
assistant curator Elsie Kittredge, who later moved to Woodstock and
lived there with her sister.
For the next three decades, Misses Billings and Kittredge explored
their chosen territory, seeking out flowering plants, ferns, mosses
and grasses, and preserving them in their growing herbarium.
Kittredge was an expert watercolorist, and added small paintings of
the living plants, their buds, flowers or other features. In the
course of their research, they discovered more than 50 plants never
before found in Vermont, and several new to the world of botanical
Much of their effort focused on Mount Tom, where the Billings
family lived, but they also scoured Woodstock's hillsides, bogs,
river banks, meadows, cliff tops and ravines - in Kittredge's
words, "widely differing plant habitats." They brought back
specimens from the entire area, often with great excitement, and
they continued their effort for years.
After Miss Billings' death in 1944, the herbarium was moved around
to various institutions: Dartmouth College, the Woodstock
Historical Society, and the Vermont Institute for Natural Science.
Its recent donation to the MBR National Historical Park gives it,
at last, a permanent home.
"It will stay put now," says Laura Anderson, MBR curator. "I think
Miss Billings would be pleased to know that it has come back
The herbarium is carefully stored in climate-controlled space, and
an intern has spent the summer working on cataloguing the 1,128
specimens. "It's an important collection," Anderson says. "It was
collected here, by someone who lived on the site, so it has both
cultural and scientific value."
The legacy of Misses Billings and Kittredge is still very much
alive at the park. On a recent sunny morning, MBR ecologist Kyle
Jones and Anderson took a walk through the gardens and forest
surrounding the elaborate brick mansion where the Marsh, Billings,
and Rockefeller families lived, each in different eras.
Like her father, who planted Mount Tom with trees, Elizabeth
Billings made plantings of her own around the property - among them
a fern garden, a mushroom garden, a garden of grasses, and a
"We think this is where the fern garden was," Jones said,
gesturing toward a hillside lushly covered with various ferns.
Nearby, a reedy pond created by Frederick Billings is still fed by
an underground piping system and is home to contemporary frogs and
Slightly further along the network of hillside paths lies a
section of forest that Elizabeth Billings called "the Arboretum."
Several species of trees unusual for the area are still growing
there, among them shagbark hickory, white ash, bitternut hickory,
sycamore, common hop tree, and honey locust. Park authorities
believe that Elizabeth Billings planted them after her father's
death in 1890. Just up the hill from them, several native trees are
identified with small metal tags also placed by that generation of
"More and more we are discovering and understanding the role of
the Billings women in carrying forward their father's forestry and
conservation work," Anderson notes. "Really, the women are the ones
who kept the estate going."
Billings' widow, Julia, oversaw things and worked with estate
manager George Aitken to keep things going smoothly, while the
daughters each developed a special interest - Laura on the estate
farm (today the adjacent Billings Farm and Museum), Mary on the
buildings and literature, and Elizabeth with her passion for
gardening and botanical studies.
"They all were interested in nature and liked being in nature,"
Anderson notes. "It probably came from growing up here."
Tom Slayton is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor emeritus
of Vermont Life magazine.
Historical photo courtesy Billings Family Archives
A black and white photo of Julia Billings and her daughters,
Elizabeth, Laura, and Mary, who carried on the farm and forestry
work of Frederick Billings after his death.
Photos by Tom Slayton
MBR National Historical Park's curator Laura Anderson and
ecologist Kyle Jones take a walk through the gardens that Elizabeth
Billings helped create near the family mansion.
Photos by Tom Slayton
This drawing of Swamp Persicaria, a member of the buckwheat
family, is one of the 1,128 specimens collected and preserved by
Elsie Kittredge and Elizabeth Billings.