DUMMERSTON — All great writers should have what Rudyard Kipling had: a home among mountains. Early in his married life, the adventurous poet of the British Empire chose a tamer range to inspire him than his tales and world travels would suggest — not the Himalayas of Asia or the Mitumbas of Africa, but the rippling hills of southern New England.
Kipling was smitten with the countryside outside Brattleboro when he honeymooned here in 1892. His wife, Caroline Balestier, had relatives in the area. He bought land in rural Dummerston and designed a shingled three-story house he called Naulakha — a Hindi word meaning “jewel beyond price.” Kipling began several of his famous works in the house, including “The Jungle Book” and “The Day’s Work,” “The Seven Seas” and “Captains Courageous.”
His writing table, tucked into the corner of a first-floor sitting room, remains at Naulakha, as do other furnishings. None of this would be surprising if the fastidiously restored house, now a National Historic Landmark, were a house museum. But it is a vacation rental that sleeps eight. Guests can feast at the polished dining table next to a sideboard with hand-carved panels from India, where the writer was born in 1865. They can repose in Kipling’s bathtub, rock on the deep back porch, and play pool or checkers in the third-floor game room.
Next door, Kipling’s newly restored carriage house once served as lodgings for the coachman. Now it, too, has been transformed into a vacation house, complete with a kitchen flooded with morning light and a living room as elegantly decked out as Kipling’s own. Landmark Trust USA, the nonprofit organization that restored and manages the rental of Naulakha and the carriage house, also owns three other historic vacation houses in southern Vermont: the 1802 Amos Brown farmhouse at the edge of the Green Mountains, the Greek Revival-style Dutton Farmhouse near Naulakha, and the 1903 Sugarhouse, also close by, all fully restored.
Their previous owners were prosperous farmers. The well-sited farmhouses command panoramic views and display the fashionable decor of their times. The Sugarhouse, converted into a pine-paneled cottage, nestles into an orchard off a country road.
Landmark Trust USA also owns the Scott Farm, a 570-acre property just up the road from Naulakha. The farm houses the organization’s administrative office, hosts weddings in its scenic orchard, and offers education programs. It also is a commercial fruit farm known for its more than 90 heirloom varieties of apples. Its advanced ecological techniques are studied by other growers throughout New England. Visitors flock to the farm to try heirloom apples — fresh, baked, or squeezed — on the annual Apple Tasting Day over Columbus Day weekend.
Tristam Johnson, interim executive director of Landmark Trust USA, explains that this organization is modeled on its British parent, Landmark Trust, which also rescues historic properties and returns them to their original period condition, using high standards of craft and historical fidelity. Because a drafty dining room or a primitive privy is even less appealing today than it was in 1802, the houses restored by both organizations receive new heating and plumbing systems, as well as modern kitchens. By renting the updated buildings to history-minded travelers, the trusts defray some of the costs of maintenance and repair.
“The rental income makes this a useful model for historic preservation,” says Kelly Carlin, operations manager for Landmark Trust USA. “Most house museums have to fund-raise for their continued upkeep, whereas the rental income accomplishes this for us.” The late Sir John and Lady Christian Smith, who founded Landmark Trust in the United Kingdom in 1965, “believed that if you gave people an intimate experience with historic preservation, like staying in one of these houses, that they would hopefully support it in the future,” Carlin adds. The other prongs of the organization’s mission, here and in Britain, are education — including workshops that teach the skilled crafts techniques used in historic preservation — and land stewardship.
Each of the five properties in Dummerston offers the pastoral experience that prompted Kipling to declare this one of the most beautiful places in the world. A recent weekend at the Sugarhouse bore that out. Though it lacks the expansive views of its sister vacation houses, the Sugarhouse, backed by a hill in the Scott Farm’s orchard, offers the most private setting and its own intimate charms. It’s also the least expensive ($280 for two days in summer), the coziest (sleeps two in a double bed), and the only house that allows dogs. A screened porch with a picnic table adjoins an outdoor nook equipped with a charcoal grill, and the immaculate kitchen and bath are stocked with attractive dishes, cookware, utensils, towels, and linens, plus coffeemaker and dishwasher. Vacationers who can’t bring perishables will find all manner of provisions, from local farm-fresh meat and artisanal bread, cheese, and wine to Cheerios, on Route 5 outside of Brattleboro, less than 10 miles away.
What renters won’t find in these year-round vacation houses are air conditioning, television, and Internet service. Unlike a gas fireplace or a dishwasher, the latter can break the spell that deep silence casts over this still-rural part of New England. Unplugged from laugh tracks and buzzing devices, visitors can settle into a profound and timeless experience of place. This was another thing that the founders of Landmark Trust in Britain had in mind: providing travelers with opportunities to contemplate their own place in time. The same sentiment guides the US organization. Despite the obvious perils, that includes families with kids.
“We really have had no problems, as our guests are truly respectful of the building, the contents, and the history,” says Johnson.
Contemplation from rockers or Adirondack chairs is only one option for passing the time. More active pursuits abound in the countryside along the Connecticut River. Maps and guidebooks in the houses point the way to hiking and skiing trails, back roads for cycling, walking, and running, swimming holes, and paddling spots. To dispel rainy-day cabin fever, Brattleboro’s Art Deco movie theater, the Latchis, another jewel of historic preservation, screens three first-run features a day. Riverside restaurants, ethnic eateries (try Three Stones, a Mexican Mayan restaurant, on Canal Street), pubs, and bakeries offer tempting alternatives to cooking in.
Kipling once said that his two favorite cities in the world were the city of his birth, Bombay, and Brattleboro. But reentering even this city’s modest bustle after a few days of rural quiet, one may find oneself pining for the sound of crickets, or the sight of unsullied snow.