Vaughan Woods & Historic Homestead is a 200 acre nonprofit nature preserve, house museum, and education center located in Hallowell. The Woods and trails are protected through a conservation easement held by the Kennebec Land Trust, and the 1997 Homestead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Vaughan Woods are a 200 acre property with various carriage trails and hiking trails and feature a series of arched stone bridges over Vaughan Brook. Locals affectionately call it “Hobbitland.” The 2 mile Corniche Trail starts off very wide as it was originally built as a carriage trail for the Vaughans to ride to their tea house on the hill. From the “Driving Bridge,” you can see the dam that was built on Cascade Pond to provide constant water to the factories that once existed along the Brook.
The Vaughan Brook winds downhill from the dam creating small waterfalls that can be seen from the many historic stone bridges. The trails are very well maintained and the loop crosses a pretty meadow where the Vaughan family once pastured animals.
Because of COVID, the homestead and its grounds were off limits during my visit in 2021 so the photos of the homestead and immediate grounds on this site were mostly found on the organization’s official Facebook page.
The house was built in 1794 by Charles Vaughan. His brother Benjamin and his family moved into the home in 1797 and began a 200 year family connection to the property. Over the years, the home was expanded and additional buildings were constructed, most notably the octagonal music room/addition.
During non-COVID times, various public events are held at the Homestead including live music, historical presentations and volunteers perform trail maintenance. The home features many period pieces of furniture and paintings dating back to the 1700s.
On the grounds, there is a gazebo and a formal garden.
The Vaughan Homestead can trace its roots to Colonial times, when the land on the banks of the Kennebec River was being developed by a group known as the Kennebec Proprietors. The Proprietors had been granted the land as a result of the original land grants to the Plymouth Colony. Starting in the 1750’s, the Proprietors laid out lots along the Kennebec from Woolwich to Norridgewock and kept some large lots for themselves – including the land which eventually became Vaughan Woods. Benjamin Hallowell was one of the original Proprietors and his rights to the land passed on to his descendents. The town of Hallowell honored him by taking his name.
In 1794, Charles Vaughan built the home on the “ancestral land” in Hallowell and named it Salama. Charles was one of Sarah Hallowell Vaughan’s children (a descendant of Benjamin Hallowell) and Charles moved to Hallowell to oversee the management of the inherited Proprietor’s land development.
In 1797, his brother Benjamin moved into the home along with with wife, 7 children, his sister, 4 maids and a tutor. Benjamin, a British “political radical,” was fleeing trouble both in his native England and France, and was seeking a new life away from his European troubles. Benjamin, born in Jamaica, was a physician and politician who, among other things, was a friend of Benjamin Franklin, a member of Parliament, and a supporter of the American cause. He took part in the Treaty of Paris working on peace negotiations to end the Revolutionary War before being accused of treason in England (for his support of the French Revolution), fleeing to Paris, and then fleeing again to escape Robespierre and his guillotine after he was accused of being a British spy.
Benjamin and family made their way to America, reportedly with a wealth of 10,000 pounds (worth approx. $12 million USD in 2021). They made their way to Hallowell and settled into a quiet, pastoral life, beginning a seven generation family relationship with the property.
Benjamin was a prodigious collector of books and eventually built a 10,000 book library which was claimed to be 2nd in size only to Harvard. He began planting fruit trees, raising livestock, and entertaining at the home. Sarah Vaughan had a 2 acre herb garden on the property which she dried, made into medicines, and distributed to the sick in the community. Benjamin continued to correspond with many important figures of the time including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson about politics, medicine, crops and philosophy.
In 1835, Benjamin Vaughan died. He left his heirs very little, as he had spent almost all of his considerable wealth quietly helping build Hallowell infrastructure and paying off his son’s debts.
The Family Reluctantly Downsizes the Estate
Benjamin’s daughter Sarah did not inherit much from her father and then lost quite a bit more after a bank crash. She was forced to sell of much of the land around the home, including the land around Vaughan Brook. Various businesses were established near the brook in including a wire mill, glue factory and sandpaper factory and they built the dam on Cascade Pond to provide a steady flow of water for their factory work. By they 1850s, the Vaughans were essentially just farming the land for themselves and eventually, it became just a summer home after the Vaughans moved to Boston for work.
Reclaim the Brook
Starting in the 1890s, William Warren Vaughan and his brother Benjamin embarked on a 40 year project to right the “family folly” and turn the property into a jewel. They began purchasing back the land that had been sold, dismantling the factories that had been built on the brook, and started creating a nature preserve. They built 3 miles of trails, nine stone bridges, and a tea house on the hill.
“My hope is to make the old place at Hallowell into a beautiful park and pleasure ground, with the addition of woods on the other side of the Cascade that originally were a part of it, and having on certain days music & tables & tea & coffee & sodas & edibles at cost for everybody that choose to come & behave themselves.”
– William Warren Vaughan to his father, 1886
They added a grass tennis court, and at the pond they constructed a bath house and installed a diving board. They also made many improvements to the house itself including the octagonal addition for the music room, indoor bathrooms, electricity, a sewer line, and an Otis elevator.
All of their hard work paid off as the house, grounds, and trails are quite lovely. The house is now listed on the National Historic Register.
Land Trust Easement and Nonprofit Creation
In 1991, Diana Vaughan Marvin Gibson and her husband George donated a conservation easement on Vaughan Woods to the Kennebec Land Trust. Upon their deaths in 2001/2, a nonprofit organization was created to oversee the house and the land.
By 2015, it was estimated that over 40,000 people visited per year and enjoyed the trails, the grounds, and the various events put on at the Homestead.