The Legacy of Elmer Darling
Elmer A. Darling was a prominent gentleman farmer, community planner, conservationist and philanthropist whose leadership and benevolence in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont left a legacy still remembered and revered by residents today. Burke historian Phyllis Burbank referred to this period of local history as “the Darling era”.
Elmer continued the local philanthropic work of his uncle Alfred B. Darling, who died in 1896. It has been estimated that in addition to the large, productive Darling farms, the Darling land acquisitions for industrial sites and numerous residences in the Village of East Burke, forested land for logging (in Burke, East Haven, Victory, Kirby, Westmore and Lyndon) and the recreational land on Lake Willoughby in Westmore totaled over 8,000 acres. In 1931 the court valued this Vermont real estate at $190,675. The New York real estate was not part of the probate inventory.
Darling used this success as a businessman to benefit those of his community and become involved in politics. He was a Vermont delegate to the 1924 Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio that nominated fellow Vermonter, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), for President of the United States. In 1929 Vermont historian Arthur F. Stone wrote:
“Outstanding among well-known figures of Vermont is Elmer A. Darling, whose career has been of singular variety and interest, who now (1928) resides in a palatial residence called Burklyn Hall near East Burke, pays taxes in eight towns, is a moving spirit in all projects directed toward the advancement of several communities, and belongs to one of the oldest families in the United States.”
On a broader scale, the Darling family in general maintained a long tradition of philanthropy in this area of Vermont. The Congregational Church of East Burke is an excellent example. The early settlers of Burke were Congregationalists that came primarily from Litchfield, Connecticut and organized here in 1807. The present Congregational Church in the village of East Burke was constructed in 1845 by Baptists, and the Congregationalists rented it occasionally.
In 1865, Alfred B. Darling purchased the Baptist Church and leased it to the Congregationalist Society. Upon Alfread’s death he willed the property to the Society with an endowment of $10,000 to support the church. Both Elmer and his brother Lucius continued their uncle’s interest in the church and contributed to the decoration of the building in 1900 and 1924. Darling purchased a cottage in the village and “fitted it with up-to-date improvements for a Congregational parsonage”. Upon his death Elmer Darling left an endowment of $15,000.
In 1895 Alfred B. Darling (president), Mary V. Belden (secretary and descendent of the Belden Farm, #2), Mabel Hall Walter (treasurer and descendent of the Walter Farm, #5) and others formed the Society for the Study of the History of Burke (later renamed the Burke Historical Society). One of the motivations for the society’s establishment was a project to save and relocate the White School, a frame one-room schoolhouse originally constructed ni 1817 that closed in 1894 and was situated in District No. 3 in Burke.
After Alfred’s death in 1896, Elmer Darling provided leadership for the new organization and the historic schoolhouse was relocated in 1923 to a site next to the Burke Mountain Club (built in 1919) in East Burke. Today the schoolhouse is maintained as a museum of local history.
Beginning in 1903 and again in 1918 and 1919, Elmer Darling deeded three parcels of land in East Burke for expansion of the Woodmont Cemetery (begun in 1942 with a cemetery association dating to 1902). Darling transformed a small burial ground into a beautiful cemetery with landscaping and stone fencing. He financed the construction of “a fine tomb (1902), a tool house, set out trees, bought a house for its sexton and gardener and surrounded the cemetery by a handsome iron fence”. Darling left an endowment of $15,000 in his will and many members of the Darling family are buried there including Elmer, his brother and his nephew.
Meanwhile, in 1904 Elmer Darling began acquiring forested land on nearby Burke Mountain to supply his Saw Mill in the Village of East Burke. Burke historian Mabel H. Walters wrote that when it seemed a lumber company might “begin to ravage the slopes of the mountain and destroy its forest” . . . “Elmer bought over 1,000 acres of land there to preserve the beauty of the mountain”.
Darling financed the construction of a carriage road (1912) to the summit, a fire tower (1912) and a caretakers’ residence (1913). Lucius A. and Henry G. Darling gifted 1,662 acres to the Vermont Forest and Parks Division. The state subsequently purchased an additional 43 acres, and the Darling State Forest Park was created in 1934. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) improved the Darling Forest from June 1933 to September 1935 and from April 1936 to September 1938. A 2.5 story Toll House (1941) was constructed by the CCC, in the Adirondack Rustic style of architecture developed by the National Park Service, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 (pdf). Visible from much of the District looking east at Burke Mountain, Darling State Park now covers 1,726 acres.
In 1918 Darling designed and funded construction of the Burke Mountain Club, on the site of a former hotel across the road from his industrial properties in East Burke. Dedicated in 1920, this 1.5 story Colonial Revival style building with associated carriage shed and bandstand was built as a library, community meeting space and caretaker’s apartment. In 1922, Darling purchased a large bronze plaque to memorialize Burke’s veterans. Installed inside the Club, this plaque recognizes Burke’s 94 veterans killed in the Civil War, 2 in the Spanish American War and 22 in World War I. In his will Darling set up a $30,000 endowment to maintain the building and grounds. The Club is still a vital resource in this small community with its public library and meeting space.
Alfred A. Darling was a major financial contributor to repairs made to the Union Meeting House in Burke Hallow for its 100th anniversary in 1896. His nephew, Lucius Darling, was the last surviving trustee of the Union Meeting House Society. In his will, Elmer Darling set up a $6,000 endowment for the maintenance of this Burke Hollow church and cemetery, still owned today by the Town of Burke. The Union Meeting House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008 (pdf). Darling’s will also set up a $10,000 endowment for the Needy and Poor in the Town of Burke.
In 1920 Elmer Darling Succeeded his friend Theodore N. Vail as president of the Board of Tustees of thee Lyndon Institute at Lyndon Center. Vail had served as president from 1894 to 1903 and again from 1913 to 1920, and Darling continued to serve as president until 1931. Darling was also a trustee of the St. Johnsbury Academy from 1920 until his death in 1931, and his will left $10,000 to the school.
When a fire leveled the historic Lyndon, Vermont (follow link to see our town gallery) in 1924, Darling chaired a building committee and donated land to construct a new Colonial Revival style hotel in the center of town. Because of his leadership the new hotel, the ‘Darling Inn: A Gem in the Green’ was named for him. The Darling Inn in Lyndonville opened in 1928. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Place since 1980 (pdf). Today the building operates as the Darling Inn Apartments, a 27-unit facility for senior citizens.
Darling owned a summer cottage named Cragmere on the south end of Willoughby Lake in Westmore, only 12 miles north of East Burke. In 1910, he acquired a specially-build, 35’ motor launch, The Burklyn, for day cruises. In 1914, Darling “turned over” his second cottage, Sunset View, to the Lyndonville Village Improvement Society (LVIS) “rent free”, to be used as a Tea Room to raise funds for the maintenance of several public parks in Lyndonville. In 1921 Darling built The Boulders dance casino, which he also “turned over” to the LVIS “rent free for fund raising”. The casino opened August 3, 1921 with “475 people attending.” Both Cragmere Cottage and The Boulders contained Darling’s personal property in 1930, including furniture and kitchen appliances valued at $299. Upon Darling’s death in 1931, the LVIS involvement at Willoughby Lake ended, and in 1934 the property became a summer attraction on the lake.
Darling may have sensed his impending death, and he prepared his last will on January 24, 1931. The will and administrative papers are today stored at the Caledonia County Courthouse in St. Johnsbury. Elmer never married and his death was “not unexpected”. He “passed on” at his mansion on April 11, 1931, just short of his 83rd birthday. His obituary reported his death “came with a deep sense of personal loss to every one who knew him and had come to recognize his fine traits of character and his true, philanthropic interest and real personal concern in the well being of the community and state”.
The obituary noted that the community “has many eloquent monuments to his memory, both in lasting brick and stone and in the hears and lives of the people with whom he came in contact”. The funeral was held at Burklyn Hall, with the Reverend Lawrence Larrowe of East Burke conducting the services. During the services all business was suspended in East Burke and Lyndonville, and shades were drawn in St. Johnsbury stores. Darling was buried in the family lot at Woodmont Cemetery in East Burke.
At his death, the regional newspaper reported that Elmer Darling’s estate totaled over 8,000 acres. Darling was a director of the Lyndonville Savings Bank and Trust Company, the Darling Inn in Lyndonville, the Lyndonville Realty Company, the Community Building Company as well as several Vermont railroad corporations.
He had extended his business and social network by becoming a member of the Union League Club of New York, the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and the New England Society of New York City. On the Friday following his funeral, Darling philanthropy was headline news in the regional newspaper, the Caledonian Record, under the title: “Darling Left $211,000 Public Bequest.” His will listed the recipients of his philanthropy, left in trusts to:
- Burke Mountain Club, $15,000;
- Lyndon Institute, $100,000;
- St. Johnsbury Academy, $10,000;
- University of Vermont, $5,000;
- Middlebury College, $5,000;
- Bennington College for Girls, $5,000;
- Town of Burke for Needy Account, $10,000
- Union Meeting House and Cemetery at Burke Hollow, $6,000;
- Brightlook Hospital, $10,000.
There was no public announcement of the extent of the Darling fortune or his will’s many private and personal benefactors.
The executors of the Darling Estate were his brother Lucius, his nephew Henry and the Lyndonville Savings Bank and Trust Company, where Elmer had served as a director. The will contained eight single-spaced pages of references to land deeds in the Northeast Kingdom and the newspaper reported his “magnificent estate of over 8,000 acres”. Darling owned Vermont real estate in Burke, Lyndon, East Haven (466 acres), Victory (800 acres), Kirby (340 acres), and Westmore (391 acres, in addition to the The Boulders Casino and Cragmere Cottage properties).
The Tentative Summary of his estate, as of his death in April 1931, consisted of cash, bonds, stocks, mortgages, notes, life insurance, personal property and Vermont real estate totaling $1,195,105.79 (the value of real estate in New York was not included). Rents on Manhattan real estate in New York totaled over $20,000 per month. At the time of his death Darling held three checking accounts and five savings accounts. The balance of the Decree of Distribution, dated June 9, 1932, was 691,435.09.
What an amazing life story . . . our only question is: where are the Darling and Vilas families of today?
Don’t forget to visit our Lyndon, Vermont picture gallery.