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Escape to Aspen Wye: A Gathering of Ideas and Innovation Publication

June 17, 2019  • Aspen Wye Fellows

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Historical Beginnings of Wye

“People…since this place has been in existence have wondered ‘What goes on there? What do people do there?’”
—Anne Whaley, Daughter of Wye Plantation Farm Manager, John R. “Dickie” Whaley

Original Wye Plantation house

Steeped in history and natural beauty on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Wye Plantation, later becoming the Aspen Institute’s Wye River Campus, has its origins with the founders of America. Early Maryland colonial leaders such as William Paca and the Tilghmans influenced the property. But, it was industrial magnate Arthur A. Houghton Jr.’s vision for the property that charted a course for the 1000 acres to become a gathering place where ideas and innovations evolved. His eventual donation of portions of the property to the Aspen Institute and the University of Maryland created a legacy which has significantly impacted agriculture, the environment, education, business, and government.

“It is very important for people to understand just how important the property has been intellectually to the country…as a key place to bring people from government, from businesses, from civil society, from universities to grapple with critical issues.”
—Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of Aspen Institute for Policy and Public Programs

Interior of 1939 library

Upon purchasing the property in 1938, Arthur Houghton spent weekends and summers accompanied by family at his beloved “Wye” enjoying the natural beauty of its agricultural setting on the Wye River. He immediately became interested in raising beef cattle and began breeding from an Aberdeen Angus herd in Scotland. He hired Williamsburg restoration architects and landscape designers to further his vision for the estate. Alibrary was built adjacent to his home which housed his personal collection of rare books and manuscripts. During the work week, he served as president of Steuben Glass, a subsidiary of Corning Glass, Inc., founded by his great-grandfather, Amory Houghton in 1851. 

Arthur Houghton with Steuben designers Sidney Waugh (center) and John Gates (right)

As a philanthropist in New York City, Arthur served on many prominent boards, supporting the arts and helping to establish the Lincoln Center. He endowed the Houghton Library for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University and from 1940 to 1942, served as the Curator of Rare Books at the Library of Congress. 

“He must have been on a rollercoaster. Running from one job to the other…the Houghton Library, the Library of Congress, and getting Wye going… any one of those a full-time job.”
—Hollister Houghton, Daughter of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.

Arthur Houghton’s Vision for Wye

In the mid 1950s, Arthur turned to environmental research for the betterment of the food supply working with the University of Maryland (UMD) Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES). Establishing the foundation, Wye Institute, in 1963, Arthur expanded his philanthropic interests to stimulate educational, cultural and economic opportunities in the region. He built contemporary facilities at Wye Woods to launch a summer educational camp for middle school boys designed to promote civil understanding and in Arthur’s words, “stir the imagination of extraordinarily promising young persons” from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The camp was integrated and eventually included girls— open to all students regardless  of race, religion or ethnic origin.

By the late 1970s, Arthur’s philanthropy included his donation of the Angus cattle herd to UMD to continue the research he had started. Cattlemen from around the world were beating a path to Wye to purchase breeding stock. The Wye Angus Sale, an auction held on the first Saturday in April each year, began in 1978. Proceeds from the annual cattle auction and the sale of bull semen continue to fund UMD’s agricultural research.

“What really satisfied him the most was vision—seeing a need, gathering the right people together who might share that vision, and proceeding…it’s reflected in the glass and in many areas of his life.”
—Thomas Spann, Former Director of Information, Wye Plantation

Following Arthur Houghton’s death in 1990, the UMD–MAES opened the Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Laboratory. Today, the Wye Research and Education Center’s research and extension programs utilize nearly 800 acres of land on the shores of the Wye River focused on preserving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and sustaining agriculture productivity, product diversity and maintaining Maryland’s valued quality of life.

“The 1000-acre peninsula surrounded by the Wye River is environmentally significant providing three miles of undisturbed shoreline, several pristine ponds and vast areas of marsh that create isolated coves and beaches along the riverfront. This landscape creates critical habitat—a refuge for biologically sensitive resources that support many species of fragile ora and fauna and diverse wildlife.
—Jeffrey H. Horstman, Executive Director, ShoreRivers

Julian Bond

Arthur was able to share Wye with the world in 1979 when Wye Institute donated Wye Woods to the Aspen Institute, whose mission aligned with his own passion for providing a place that could inspire and educate future leaders. Within three years the manor house, now known as Houghton House, and a newly-constructed contemporary structure, River House, were also donated and the Aspen Wye River Campus gradually evolved into a conference 86 lodging rooms. Glimpses into the property’s earlier grandeur can be enjoyed on the grounds of Houghton House with its formal terraced gardens featuring one of the oldest Linden trees in the United States, an 18th-century milk house adjacent to the gardens, and the enclosed cemetery containing the 1910 memorial to William Paca, who had lived on nearby Wye Island.

“It’s just a different feeling when you’re able to be in a home that has the capacity for 130 people, and you have the water in the background. It makes for a special event, and people feel like they are part of something bigger, [the Aspen Institute]…This thousand- acre parcel is very special.”
—Cindy Buniski, Vice President, Administration and Facilities, Aspen Institute, Retired

Wye’s proximity to the nation’s capital, security, and beauty lends itself to deep, difficult conversations. During the 1990s, the Institute began conducting hundreds of leadership seminars and programs and the property served as host to numerous international meetings. In 1995, the Middle East and the Syrian-Israeli Peace Talks were held at Wye and in 1998, President Bill Clinton, Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and King Hussein of Jordan met there to produce the Wye Accord for Peace in the Middle East.

Over the years, the Institute continued to attract statesmen, diplomats, and leaders in industry and academia for meaningful dialogues. The Great Collisions program series held a weekend-long seminar on Islam and the West, moderated by Bill Moyers, and featuring Muslim, Christian, and Jewish journalists and scholars from seven different countries. The Wye Fellows Program has connected intellectually curious neighbors and friends of the Institute to such prominent national and international leaders as Queen Noor of Jordan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, civil rights icon Julian Bond, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


This project has been funded, in part, by grants from the Henry A. Jordan, M.D. Preservation Excellence Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arthur H. Kudner, Jr. Fund of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation. Additional support was received from Nina Rodale Houghton, Alan and Elizabeth Grif th, Tom and Cathy Hill, Amory Houghton, Jr., Sherry and Charles Manning, Larry and Esther Stanton, Lane Engineering, Inc. and Stevens Palmer, LLC.

Photo credits appear in “Escape to Aspen Wye” video.

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Escape to Aspen Wye: A Gathering of Ideas and Innovation Video
December 15, 2018 • Institute Staff

Little Known Facts about Wye…

A neighbor to Wye Plantation was William Paca, one of Maryland’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, a three-term Governor of Maryland and a Federal judge.

Arthur Houghton’s personal book collection included Jonathan Swift’s diaries, the Brownings’ love letters, “The Gutenberg Bible,” Lewis Carroll’s original manuscripts, and Shakespeare’s first folios.

The belief that the monument to William Paca at Wye also marks his gravesite is questioned by Paca scholars who have no knowledge of his actual burial location.

The former Whitby’s Store in the nearby village of Carmichael was one of the area’s first “convenience stores.” Residents could fuel their vehicles, purchase household items, and pick up their mail along with their groceries.