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Summer Living in the Past

The seasonal pleasures of Capital Region historic sites

by Ann Morrow on June 7, 2012

Summertime fun at a historic site can offer the best of the season in a single picturesque jaunt. Among the pleasures to be found are elegant gardens, bird watching (and yes, we’re talking eagles), nature trails, breathtaking views (hilltop and riverside), breeze-catching verandas, and of course, historical architecture and furnishings, along with introductions to fascinating personages from American presidents to a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Summer is also when many of these sites fill their calendars with free events such as llama and sheep shearing, reenactments, outdoor concerts, artisan and farmer demos and crafts fairs. The following are just a few of the many regional destinations that are especially appealing in warm weather. Admission fees are modest, and the evocative grounds (with an exception or two on weekends) are free.

Clermont, a gracious Georgian mansion in Germantown, may be the ultimate history house, starting with the estate’s founding in 1686 by Robert Livingston, a new-made British manor lord, and continuing for seven generations (while including Beekmans, Schuylers and other scions). It is now a National Historic Landmark belonging to New York State.

Preserved to its elegant 1920s appearance, the 1780s manor house and its thousands of antiques and artifacts are intimately representative of the early history of America. The most renowned resident is Robert R. Livingston, a drafter of the Constitution and inventor-partner with Robert Fulton of the steamboat. This riverside residence is situated within a 490-acre landscape that includes the dock that held the Clermont steamboat; a garden cottage, carriage barn, and other historic buildings; and Colonial ruins. And ancient oaks, flower gardens, fishpond and bird walks—the property abounds with wildlife and herons, hawks and eagles. Hikers and bikers are welcome on the winding carriage trails.

Old First Church and Old Burying Ground in Bennington, Vt., are reason enough to not wait until autumn to take scenic Route 7 to one of the hotbeds of the Revolution. The serene, 1805 church was built on the foundation of a 1760s separatist Meeting House. This airy, whitewashed structure of hand-planed planks has a window-filled upper gallery, and all the large arched windows on the left look out on the 1700s burial ground—a resting place for Revolutionary War soldiers, German mercenaries, and Bennington worthies. The gravestones contain marvelous examples of early stone-carved religious symbolism (lots of winged skulls).

It’s also the final resting place for poet Robert Frost and his wife and other family members. Located behind the church, this plot is surprisingly moving, perhaps because it’s close to the natural environments that Frost, a Vermont native, wrote about so eloquently. Old First Church is open to the public, and tours are available. Stone House, the Robert Frost museum, is only a few miles away.

Mabee Farm is set on a beautiful bank of the Mohawk River on Route 5S in Rotterdam Junction. The oldest house in the Mohawk Valley, it contains its original furnishings and implements, reflecting the historical significance of early farmsteading in the Mohawk River region. The 1705 Dutch-style stone farmhouse (built over an even older fur trading post) is surrounded by reminders of its working-farm days: the brick slave quarters and a blacksmith cottage still exist, along with the 1760 Nilsen Barn (which houses exhibits) band other related buildings. By the time you get to the gardens—a Colonial herb garden and a broom-corn garden, among them, you should feel the modern day slipping away as the sway of farming, smithy-ing, and inn-keeping takes hold. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see the farm’s recreated bateaux (modeled from 18th century Schenectady vessels) sailing by on the river as it transports beaver skins (or some modern substitute) to ports downriver.

Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald, in his hometown of Kinderhook, is where the eighth U.S. president—and first to be born an American citizen—lived from 1839 to 1862. The beautiful, buttercup-painted house—Van Buren, a courtly widower, had the 1797 Federal-style residence lavishly remodeled in grand Victorian fashion by Richard Upjohn—is situated in a park-like setting befitting a country gentleman. The house is noted for its gabled entranceway, and especially, the sumptuous, illustrated wallpaper panels imported from France. But aside from beguiling with its elegant period furnishings, this national historic resource site provides information on Van Buren’s political career, his troubled political times, and the sociology of antebellum America. Across the street from the house’s dignified grounds is a woodland walking trail. Van Buren and his wife are buried nearby in Kinderhook Reformed Cemetery, which is another good reason to go rambling about this charming hamlet, where Federal-style residences impress from several streets.

Saugerties Lighthouse was once more important as any fine gentlemen’s estate, because without it, ships wouldn’t be able to find their way through the shoals of this part of the Hudson River. Needless to say, the river view is rather spectacular. Restored from a ruin beginning in 1985, the stone and brick tower now earns its keep as a bed and breakfast with two guestrooms, though it still provides light across the darkened waters—from a solar-powered fresnel lens instead of a lantern. The first floor has a museum room with such evocative items as a whale-oil lamp. To reach the lighthouse, there’s a half-mile walk through a wetlands preserve on a flat, sandy path with bridges and boardwalks, and willow stands and wildflowers, and where you’re very likely to see herons, eagles, and perhaps a beaver or two. Or you can go by water by renting a boat from Saugerties Marina.

If you’re really being guided by the stars, you may get there during a blowout tide, when the lower water level reveals the mud flats and the wreck of an old steamboat scuttled in the flats over a hundred years ago. The trail is open daily from sunrise to sunset but be sure and call ahead for a tour, as they are usually limited to Sunday afternoons.

Grant Cottage in Wilton is a bittersweet place, bitter because it is where President Ulysses S. Grant died in disgrace 1885, but sweet in a peaceful way because it’s also where he finished his military memoir, on the advice of Mark Twain. The memoir broke sales records, redeemed his reputation, and left Grant’s family financially comfortable. The charming Adirondack cottage where Grant faced his final battle is located atop Mount McGregor, and though the mountain air didn’t return the old soldier to health, the location certainly provided spectacular views: a short walk away, the Eastern Outlook commands a panoramic view from the Hudson Valley to the Green Mountains to the Catskill Mountains.