The Historic Site
Rokeby was a prosperous Merino sheep farm in the early nineteenth century, and the traces of its agricultural past clearly mark the landscape. The pastures where sheep and dairy cattle grazed and the orchards where apples and pears once grew are crossed today by walking trails. Two hayfields continue to feed hungry cows on a neighboring farm. Nine historic outbuildings display the tools and equipment that once powered the farm. Barn foundations, wells, stone walls, and a sheep dip all remain as reminders of Rokeby’s agricultural past.
A map of the site and a virtual tour of Rokeby are available here.
This is where visitors enter the Museum, pay admission, and see the permanent exhibit, Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont. The Center is also home to the Jane Williamson Gallery, which features rotating seasonal exhibits. Restrooms and the Museum gift shop are also located here.
Like many historic houses, the farmhouse at Rokeby grew several times over the years. The original structure, now at the back, was built by the Dakin family in the late 1780s and purchased by the Robinsons in 1793. They added the large, Federal Style front block in 1814. The change in the roof line visible on the front of the house marks the last addition, made in 1893.Today, the house is fully furnished with 200 years of Robinson family belongings and vividly evokes their presence.
Rokeby’s sheep dip is a rare physical survivor of the “golden age” of Merino sheep farming in Vermont. The Robinsons took advantage of a natural rock formation to build a dam behind which the water of melting snow and spring rains collected. A stream of water then flowed over the top of the dam and onto the animals, which were held below — something like a sheep shower! The Robinsons’ prized Merinos were cleaned this way each spring to make the shearer’s job easier. Foundation stones are all that remains of the early sheep barn.
A tourist cabin is certainly unexpected on a traditional farmstead, but like many Vermonters, the Robinsons started a tourist-boarding business in the 1920s to supplement their farm income. This little cabin was built sometime in the 1930s to add to the sleeping rooms already available in the house. Then, as now, visitors drove up from the cities and suburbs of New York and southern New England to take in all that Vermont had to offer — pristine mountain views, clean air, sparkling lakes, and working farms.
Known to the Robinsons as the “other house” or “old house,” this little structure is all that remains of a once complete house. The original main block extended to the west and was demolished around 1905. The tops of some of the foundation stones are visible in the ground. It housed overflow from the main house, hired help, and extra guests.
Although it is one of the smallest buildings at Rokeby, this is actually a very large smokehouse, approaching commercial capacity. A smoldering fire was built in the chamber below — you can still see the ash left from many past blazes — and meats were hung in the area above to smoke for days, weeks, or even longer.
This small, shed-roofed coop is typical of many built on farms all over Vermont in the first decades of the 1900s. It is made of machine sawn, dimensional lumber, which tells us it was built in the twentieth century. Another clue is in the nails. Modern “wire” nails as they are known, were developed in the last years of the nineteenth century and, because they were so inexpensive to produce, quickly took over the market. All the nails in the chicken coop are wire nails. Chicken coops were built with large, south-facing windows in order to let in the maximum amount of sun and keep the hens as warm as possible. The roof slants to create a low north wall with no openings, which helps keep out the cold.
This is where the Robinsons made their famous “Rokeby butter.” This little creamery may be unique as it houses two distinct eras of technology. To the left of the doorway is an ice house; the opening gives access to the area where blocks of ice were once stored. On the right, a “modern,” 1940s refrigerated room fills the back half of the space. It has a heavy, insulated door with a metal plate declaring “Equipped with Kelvinator Electric Refrigeration.”
This outhouse is a “three seater” — one set lower for a child. The interior walls were papered over in many layers, some of newsprint, but many of old wallpaper scraps. This was probably done as much to keep the wind out as for the “homey” touch it created. If you look along the bottom trim board on the exterior of the east side you will see hinges. These once secured a catch box that could be removed for emptying.
The south end of this long, multipurpose building was used as a toolshed or shop. Farmers or their hands repaired most tools and equipment at home, so toolsheds were common on Vermont farms. The shop could become a focus of activity during the long, slow winter months when there was little to do outside. Those with a talent for wood or metal working might also produce items for sale that could bring in much-needed cash. The space at the opposite end is identifiable as a slaughterhouse by the pulley and hoist for lifting carcasses and the concrete floor with drain for bleeding them. The slaughterhouse complements the smokehouse and indicates that the Robinsons were substantially involved in smoking meat. If you look at the back of the toolshed/slaughterhouse, you will see two small, low doors to let fowl in and out. A small room between the two ends of the building once housed turkeys.
Rokeby’s granary is distinctive because it combines the functions of both granary and corn crib in one structure. The slatted bins that once held corn run along the left hand wall as you stand in the door. Unlike the other walls, this one is sheathed on the exterior with clapboards that have been shimmed to improve air circulation and speed drying of the corn. Oats, rye, and buckwheat were housed in bins on the second floor. Note the pulley above the second-floor door; it was used to hoist heavy sacks of grain up into the loft. Downstairs, on the right side of the granary, you can still see the cloth chutes through which grain once flowed at feeding time. Unlike other farm structures, the granary was set up off the ground on stone piers to discourage the rodents who would make a feast of the valuable grains stored inside.
Rokeby’s dairy barn was demolished in 1995, approximately fifty years after it ceased to function. The barn’s footprint shows that it was a large structure; the central, main portion was two-and-a-half stories high, with hay storage above and cow stanchions below. Smaller, one-and-a-half story ells flanked it on either end. The framing members of the main section and west ell were hand-hewn timbers, but the entire barn was sheathed with boards showing circular saw marks held in place with wire nails, indicating that it was completely reclad in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Like many Vermont dairy barns, this one was built up over time from older barns or salvaged parts.
Two trails — the red and the blue — meander eastward from the trailhead, climbing gently to the top of the Museum property. The red trail is about half a mile long and explores the process of natural succession at stops along the way. Click here to view our brochure, How does a farm become a forest?, a guide and instructions for visitors.
It’s hard to believe that such an impressive building once stood where only a few foundation stones remain. Much of the history of the Brick Academy, as it was called, has been lost. Founded by Rowland T. Robinson and others in 1839, before public high schools were established, the Academy offered an education based on the philosophy of nonresistance, an extreme form of pacifism. The Academy welcomed African American and white students; some were local and others from as far as New York. Among the New York students were Henry and Eliza Turpin, the children of a freed slave. An algebra book signed by Henry Turpin remains in the Museum collection. The academy closed in 1846 and was used later for agricultural storage, especially apples. The building was sold and dismantled for the brick in the early 1940s.