Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Stearns: Mary Lincoln Beckwith For Women's History Month

In mid-March, the grounds of Hildene, the Lincoln family estate, are a muddy monotone. The gardens are dormant, trees bare. The surrounding mountains, stunning in other seasons, seem to close in on the Greek Revival mansion. Still, even in bleak late winter, there’s stark beauty here, and one can understand why Mary Lincoln Beckwith, President Lincoln’s great-granddaughter, ditched Washington society in the 1930s to live year-round on this dramatic escarpment high above the Battenkill valley.

Beckwith, known as Peggy, was “more at home in a barnyard than a ballroom,” writes C.J. King, whose book Four Marys and a Jessie describes the lives of the overlooked Lincoln women. An outdoorswoman who preferred overalls and jodhpurs to taffeta and lace, Beckwith took pleasure in wandering the estate’s 500 acres with her hunting dogs, milking dairy cows, tapping sugar maples, growing vegetables and tending the formal parterre garden designed by her mother, Jessie Lincoln Beckwith.

Described as “quite a character,” Beckwith proved a devoted steward of the land purchased by her wealthy grandfather, corporate baron and diplomat Robert Todd Lincoln. In the 1940s, she revived the property’s farm and continued to work the land long after family farms began disappearing. “She was not just a gentle lady farmer,” said a family friend. “She was very evident on the farm,” pitching in and mucking out.

She also applied her agrarian skills for good causes. In the final year of World War I, long before she inherited Hildene, Beckwith organized young women in the area to help grow food. A news story reported that, finding only eight men left to cut hay, she “did the work of a half a dozen ordinary men herself.” Bullhead Pond, another property she owned north of Manchester, was used for scouting, 4H clubs and nature groups and now belongs to the state Fish and Wildlife department.

Beckwith is remembered today mostly because of her famous ancestor and because she and her brother, Bud, both childless, were the last of the Lincolns. She guarded her privacy, telling a friend, “I didn’t ask to be born a Lincoln. I’m as far away from him as anyone.” The tourist brochure describing the history of Hildene doesn’t mention this socially awkward but adventurous woman who not only got her hands dirty but also played polo, raced cars and flew airplanes at a time when most women didn’t dare.

Peggy Beckwith might have craved anonymity, but she doesn’t deserve obscurity. Defying social conventions, Abe Lincoln’s great-granddaughter returned to the land and found emancipation in that.

Kathryn Stearns has spent 30 years in journalism as a writer and editor. She is a former member of the Washington Post's editorial board and stepped down as editorial page editor of the Valley News in 2012.
Latest Stories