Family Farm

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke, Marshall Webb, Shelburne Farms, and Clyde H. Smith

It's an overcast afternoon in late June. The half-hearted drizzle that's been raining on Shelburne Farms since morning has done little to relieve the hot spell that grips northwestern Vermont. And no matter what amount of rain might fall, humidity remains high.

Strolling the grounds, Alec Webb regards the gray skies with indifference: "We need the rain," he offers. Stepping inside the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a stunning, turn-of-the-century structure built by his ancestors on the shores of Lake Champlain, he receives smiles and warm greetings from visitors. Everyone seems to know Webb, who returns kudos and good wishes with modest, almost awkward replies.

Alec Webb & friends "Our goal is to use Shelburne Farms as a resource for inspiring a sense of stewardship around the environment," says president Alec Webb. Educational programs focus on local children rather than tourists.

Webb, 47, has a quiet nature that contrasts with the stereotype of the man who would otherwise rule over such a vast estate. The Webb name, nearly as weighty in Vermont as Stowe's von Trapps, might conjure up images of railroad tycoons and posh living. Don't believe it. While there have been Webbs on this property since the late 1800s, it was the selfless nature of Alec and his family that made Shelburne Farms what it is today: a world-class historical resource owned by a non-profit organization devoted to agriculture, the environment and education.

Agriculture and the Webbs have been two constants in Shelburne Farms over the years. In the late 1880s, the property was a collection of more than 30 small farms on 3,800 acres, which Dr. William Seward Webb and his wife, Eliza Vanderbilt Webb, purchased to create an agricultural estate. The couple, one of the wealthiest in the nation thanks to a $10 million inheritance from Eliza's father, William Henry Vanderbilt, were Alec's great-grandparents.

Lila, as Eliza was known, was the granddaughter of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, a native of Staten Island, N.Y. The noted philanthropist amassed a fortune estimated at more than $100 million through railroad and shipping concerns by the time he died in 1877. (A conservative estimate of that figure in today's economy is a mind-boggling $250 billion.)

Seward Webb & Eliza Vanderbilt Webb Shelburne Farms was founded in the late 1880s by Dr. William Seward Webb (right) and his wife, Eliza Vanderbilt Webb (center). The agricultural estate was passed down through Vanderbilt Webb (front, left) and his son, Derick, before it was bequeathed to the non-profit organization that owns it today.

By contrast, Seward's passion was horses, which he intended to breed in Shelburne. While Lila's seven siblings were building immense estates around the country -- brother George's Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., takes the cake-- the Webbs were putting more energy into their farm operation than their new Vermont home. Recent research revealed the Webbs scrapped plans for a larger house in favor of more resources for their barns. Nonetheless, their home, now the inn, was Olympian by local standards.

Seward's plan to create a new cross-breed of the English hackney with American breeds didn't pan out. The notion of a wealthy New Yorker muscling in on the Morgan's turf didn't earn him points with the locals. The advent of the automobile didn't help his plan, either.

In 1913, James Watson Webb, the oldest of Seward and Lila's four children, married Electra Havemeyer and received the southern portion of the estate (now Shelburne Museum) as a wedding gift. When Seward died in 1926, followed by Lila a decade later, Alec's grandfather, Vanderbilt Webb, inherited the northern portion. In 1956, Van, as he was known, passed it on to Alec's father, Derick.

"They basically blew their wad building the place," Alec says. "After that initial burst of energy it went through a period of decline." Derick tried to make ends meet with a dairy operation of 150 Brown Swiss cows in a modern facility he constructed at Shelburne Farms in the '50s. By the late '60s he was feeling pressure to sell.

Alec and his five siblings, in their teens and 20s at the time, grew up in a home on grounds close to the dairy operation. The house has since been demolished to make way for one of several private plots of land that dot the estate. Through many family dialogues, the Webbs agreed Shelburne Farms best served the community by remaining intact. "None of us wanted to inherit it and then have to sell half of it to pay the estate taxes," says Alec's brother, Marshall. "Our souls at an early age became entwined with the spirit of the farm. We wanted it to stay in one piece."

It was a conclusion arrived at more through emotion and intuition than rational thinking, Alec suggests with a chuckle 30 years later. "I don't know if we were thinking that clearly at that age." It was, after all, the late '60s: Ideals were high, and concern for the environment and education were foremost.

In 1970, Webb graduated from the Groton School, a private high school in Groton, Mass. After spending his final semester in a work-study program at the Shaker Mountain School in Burlington, he helped start a small summer camp for children at Shelburne Farms. He worked for state government after high school, but believed he had a better chance of affecting environmental education by focusing on programs at Shelburne Farms than by working in Montpelier.

In 1972, after Shelburne Farms' summer camps and educational programs evolved to include teacher training, Alec and Marshall helped form Shelburne Farms Resources Inc., a non-profit organization to manage the programs. They planned to obtain funding from foundations to allow the non-profit group to purchase the property, including its remarkable buildings that were slowly falling into disrepair.

The sale of property on the east side of Harbor Road and another plot to the north helped stem the tide of Derick's financial burden, but on March 13, 1984, the unexpected happened: At the age of 70, in apparent good heath, Derick died of a heart attack. Unbeknown to Alec and his brothers and sisters, his will contained a revision that would change the course for the Webbs' fledgling organization. In one fell swoop the non-profit group's assets grew from a rototiller and garden tractor to include all of Shelburne Farms -- lock, stock and historic barrel.

"He was clear that was what we all hoped he would do," Alec says. "I was pleasantly surprised."

"Very much so," agrees Marshall. "It gave us such a great boost."

"Lots of families have had similar opportunities to save a property like this from development and not everybody has done it," suggests Paul Bruhn. "They essentially gave up their inheritance, and that was a really critical gift they've given all of us." Bruhn is executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, a Burlington non-profit organization devoted to historic preservation. "The whole collection of the buildings and the landscape really makes Shelburne Farms a very magical, very special place."

Dirt roads wind throughout the 1,400 acres that remain of Shelburne Farms. The landscaping was influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture responsible for New York's Central Park. The sweeping curves give the feel of an English countryside, create the illusion of wider spaces, and make for a pleasant one-mile commute from Webb's home on the northern end of the property to his office at the Farm Barn, perhaps the most striking of all the buildings on the grounds. While Derick planned plots in Shelburne Farms for all his children, Alec and Marshall, who serves as buildings and grounds manager, are the only Webbs actively involved and living on the property.

Staff Shelburne Farms strives to demonstrate the big picture of agriculture. The dairy operation shows the cheese-making process from grazing cows to grocers' coolers; woodworkers harvest timber from the farm's forests; the resident bakery makes the connection between local grain and bread.

Housed in one wing of the horseshoe-shaped barn -- a word that is sorely inadequate for such a piece of architecture -- Alec's office served as the main office for the farm during its early years. Open and airy with a few chest-high partitions, wood paneling and lazy ceiling fans circulating air through the screen door -- the office isn't air conditioned -- the space could pass for an old-time bank. Indeed, once upon a time teamsters would line up at a long-gone teller type of grate rail to receive their paychecks within these very walls.

Webb, who became president in 1988, recalls the estate's main house was one of the first facilities the organization renovated following his father's donation. "The building was really hurting. It was also a way to create an enterprise that could help support the property," he says. "My grandfather actually got an estimate to demo it in the early '50s." If the estimate hadn't come in so high, the building would have been reduced to rubble.

Instead it became the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a 24-bedroom inn and restaurant operated as a profit-making subsidiary of the non-profit organization. The facility is open from May to October since the furnace was removed in the '40s and melted down to make bullets for the war effort. "They weren't expecting it to be used again," Webb speculates. "There's no heat and no air conditioning, which is a real service challenge," he adds, laughing at his own delicate choice of words. "We're kind of selecting out a crew that sees some charm in that."

Rates from $95 to $350 a day help generate a healthy portion of Shelburne Farms' revenue. Last year the organization's operating budget was $3.8 million. That number has grown each year as Webb, a staff of 40 employees, many volunteers and a board of directors have worked to grow Shelburne Farms' mission. "Our goal is to use Shelburne Farms as a resource for inspiring a sense of stewardship around the environment," Webb states. "We're also trying to demonstrate rural land use that's consistent with our environmental rhetoric."

The organization targets many of its programs at children from the area, striving to build return traffic over years that involves children's families. Webb cites research that shows exposing children to the environment and agriculture at a young age often leads to life-long love of the land. He's a walking example: "It could be as simple as we grew up on a farm in a beautiful place," he offers to explain his family's concern for the environment through generations. "We had that exposure at a young age."

Marshall Webb Marshall Webb has taken a library of stunning photos of the property. "It's just something that I love," he offers, "so I got good at it."

Building long-term relationships with area residents is Webb's goal, but tourists are always welcome. Property tours are given by volunteers like Christy Gahagan, who has been with Shelburne Farms for eight seasons.

"I get choked up on almost every tour. You see people stunned by the message that you're giving -- that it's not too late to have a conservation ethic. You see pure wonder and amazement in their eyes," she says. The extensive training she receives from Shelburne Farms on topics as varied as architecture to crop rotation allow her to entertain any topic with tourists. What's more, she's found what she's learned as a volunteer has come in useful raising horses and growing a garden at her Charlotte home.

Cow crossing "Most often what you're doing is dispelling the myth of an Industrial Revolution fortune," she adds, "and actually exposing an early conservation family that now, three or four generations later, is able to pass that on to a much greater degree than anyone could pass on their own wealth."

Program tuitions and tour fees are a relatively small portion of the organization's revenue. Shelburne Farms' dairy operation, like the inn, is operated as a for-profit subsidiary. Cheese is sold on site, in gourmet shops across the country and by mail order. Donations from individuals and corporations also contribute to the bottom line, as do fees generated by special events that take place in the Carriage Barn.

In some ways, Shelburne Farms is complicated by its success. "We've built a program and done all this renovation work and now we have an equal challenge of figuring out how to keep it going!" Webb says. A 1998 study showed the organization should be setting aside at least $350,000 a year for capital improvements, a goal it's not meeting.

Webb spends much of his time working in development, a role he cherishes for the relationships it allows him to build. Divorced in 1988 after 13 years of marriage, he has two daughters and a grandchild, but indicates his job occupies most of his time. He also admits that much of it "doesn't feel like work at all."

Recently his attention has been focused on the southern acres of Shelburne Farms -- specifically, the hackney breeding barn his great-grandfather built in 1891. The cavernous structure -- think airplane hangar with a classy, agricultural bent -- and adjacent dairy barn were purchased from Shelburne Museum in 1994 and now sit mostly unused.

Sunrise A 90,000-square-foot copper roof renovation has stopped water damage to the breeding barn, but more effort (and money) are required to assure the structure survives. A residential education program that would allow families and teachers to stay on the Shelburne Farms grounds is in planning stages. The dairy barn might provide housing for the program while Beeken/Parsons, a privately owned woodworking shop in the Farm Barn, would provide furnishings. "It'll be all lumber from the property and it's going to be spectacular," promises Marshall.

If a business measures success in terms of profit, Alec quips that a non-profit organization uses "survivability" as its yardstick. Taking a different angle, he asks, "Are we adding value to this community? I'm pretty confident we are."

They say you can never go home, but walking the Shelburne Farms grounds, Webb appears as much at home as anyone could be among such picture-book scenery. Maybe his trick was to never really leave in the first place. And with a home like Shelburne Farms, who could blame him?

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