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In This State: At Woodstock’s famed national park, four unheralded women grow in stature

Billings and Kittredge collected and preserved 1,128 plants, in a collection known to botanists as an herbarium, a priceless snapshot-in-time

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 environmental science.
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 Kittredge.
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 of Woodstock.
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 other scholars.
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 ethic.
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 Post Office.

6- Bilings Polygonum

 

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 science.
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 here."
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 wildflower garden.
"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 dragonflies.
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 Billings women.
"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.