Whether you’re visiting the area this fall, just moved here, or are an established resident, exploring the region’s historical features is high on many to-do lists. How about considering staying close to home, and exploring what’s in our own backyard? Along with the beautiful drives, the hiking, biking and shopping the Quechee area offers, are several historical points of interest to enjoy. Here are just a few to pique your interest.
Billings Farm & Woodstock
Farming was always, and remains, an important element in the Upper Valley. In the 1800s, sheep farming and wool production became an integral part of the local economy, with area mills, most notably Quechee’s Dewey’s Mills, important players in the wool products industry.
The growing economy, the new railroad, and the climate and recreational opportunities in our area attracted wealthy businessmen here in the late 19th century. Billings Farm, founded in the 1870s by Frederick Billings, a noted financier, rail magnate, and president of the newly established Woodstock Railroad, was the epitome of a state-of-the-art farming operation. Desiring to make his farm a showcase for modern farming, Billings hired George Aiken of Scotland to manage the farm. Aiken brought in and raised exceptionally fine animals, including a herd of Jersey dairy cows, and was at the forefront of establishing modern dairy farming.
Billings Farm, which had its own creamery, grew to cover nearly 1,000 acres, and was managed by Aiken from the 1880s, until his death in 1910. It continued to operate in private hands, until 1968, when it transferred ownership to The Woodstock Foundation. In 1983, the Billings Farm and Museum became operational. Today, visitors to the farm can tour the farm manager’s house, grounds and barns, and view the working livestock that populate the farm, along with discovering how farming has changed over the decades.
While visiting Billings Farm, fans of historical buildings will certainly want to stroll the streets of Woodstock. The homes, businesses and churches remind one of times past. Certainly one of the standout historic structures in town is the venerable Woodstock Inn.
In the 1890s, the Woodstock Inn opened with over 100 rooms, catering to visitors, many of whom stayed for the entire summer season. Over the years, the Woodstock Inn went through renovations and upgrades to remain a prime destination in the region.
The Quechee Gorge and Its Bridge
One of the most visited spots in the area is the Quechee Gorge. On a bright summer or fall day, throngs of people can be seen on the bridge, enjoying the view. Most, though, are not aware of the history of the gorge, and how it formed.
Running roughly one mile long, and 165 feet deep, the Quechee Gorge is known as “Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon.” The Quechee Gorge is a new phenomenon by comparison to many of the world’s gorges, dating back thousands of years, not millions.
Almost 20,000 years ago, as worldwide temperatures warmed, the glacial ice retreated northward. Ice turned to water, forming rivers and lakes. In New England, what is now the Connecticut River Valley was at the time a glacial lake named Lake Hitchcock. The lake stretched for about 200 miles south to north. Arms of this massive lake extended into the river valleys that feed into the present Connecticut River. The Ottauquechee River was one such river that fed into the lake.
About 13,000 years ago, the land in present day Connecticut holding back the voluminous waters of this glacial lake broke down, causing the lake to drain, and form the Connecticut River basin. The draining of Lake Hitchcock, which took about 1,000 years, resulted in the forming of Quechee Gorge.
According to David West, professor of geology at Middlebury College, “It was a combination of things that resulted in the formation of such a deep gorge in this location. First, there were likely some zones of weakness in the bedrock prior to the formation of the gorge. The catastrophic draining of post-glacial Lake Hitchcock…likely resulted in the channelization of tremendous amounts of water which scoured out the gorge to essentially its present configuration.”
One really gets a good feel for the geological history of the gorge by hiking down the trails. As one descends into the gorge, it is not difficult to imagine torrents of rushing water from the ancient lake spilling over the bedrock found in the gorge. The power of water, carving out a deep crevice in the land is apparent, even today.
Though the gorge has existed for thousands of years, a bridge spanning it is a recent phenomenon. To connect Quechee and Woodstock with the growing rail hub in White River Jct., local business leaders planned and built the Woodstock Railway, which opened in 1875. The major engineering obstacle facing the railroad was spanning the gorge with a bridge. A prefabricated wooden trestle bridge was installed in relatively short order in the summer of 1875. The original bridge served the railroad for over 30 years. By the early 1900s, trains and equipment were upgraded to meet the needs of business clients and passengers, as was the Quechee Gorge Bridge. In 1911, the wooden trestle bridge was replaced with a steel structure, better able to handle the heavier loads now passing over the gorge. That steel bridge, which cost $26,000 to build in 1911, is still in place today as part of Route 4.
A Wealth of Historic Buildings Lost
Resorts and farming played a critical role in Woodstock’s history, while in nearby Quechee, industry, particularly surrounding production of woolen goods, was key. Several mill operations set up shop in the town.
As Quechee’s mill complexes grew, they became communities within themselves. Along with the huge factory buildings, the mill complexes had housing for workers, shops, and recreation facilities.
The boom times of the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s gave way to lost jobs and closing factories in the 1950s and ’60s. As the mill operations closed, the venerable mill buildings were deemed unsound, and slated for demolition. At the time, historic preservation efforts weren’t what they are today, so most of Quechee’s mill buildings fell to the wrecking ball.
A portion of Quechee’s manufacturing history was spared, however. The mill building owned and operated by J.C. Parker in the 19th century remains standing in Quechee’s historic Mill District, and since 1981, houses the Simon Pearce store and restaurant.
Next door to the renovated mill building stands the Parker House. Built in 1857, this example of the Second French Empire style of architecture was home to the J.C. Parker family. In early 2020, the Parker House sold to Simon Pearce, once again being paired with the nearby mill building under the same owner. Currently, the Parker House is undergoing renovation, with its ultimate function unclear at this time.