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Experience life as a Shaker: A brief history tour of five village sites

by Maxine Carter-Lome, publisher


Step back in time and experience a simpler way of life, separated from the ways of “The World” at one of these five Shaker living history museums to learn more about who the Shakers were, what they believed, and how they lived.

“Above all, avoid rushing. Do all your work as though you had 1,000 years to live, and as you would if you knew you would die tomorrow,” said Mother Ann, and generations of Shakers sought to experience each moment as the sacred gift of life that it is. Visit if you can in a spirit of contemplation. These were places where life and work were sacred, where souls found respite from the ragged edges of commercialism and industrialism.”
– June Sprigg, scholar of American shaker culture

Canterbury Shaker Village
Canterbury, NH

Canterbury Shaker Village Canterbury, NH Canterbury Shaker Village, established in 1792, was the seventh community founded by the followers of Mother Ann Lee. By the 1830s, the Shakers at Canterbury were rich in buildings, land, cash, wood lots, livestock, produce, industry, community possessions, and community skills. At its height in the 1850s, 300 people lived and worked in over 100 buildings on this 3,000-acre compound, where they made their living from farming, selling seeds and herbs, manufacturing medicines, and making crafts, which they sold to the outside world to supplement their income.

In addition to making and selling furniture, baskets, boxes, and other household items for sale, the New Hampshire Shakers in particular were known for producing textiles and items of fashion. The Canterbury Shakers, for example, were known for making Shaker sweaters for Harvard students (Enfield, NH made Shaker sweaters for Dartmouth).

The “Dorothy Cloak,” a silk-lined hooded cape designed by a Canterbury sister, became a fashion must-have when Grover Cleveland’s wife wore one to his inauguration. Both Canterbury and Enfield villages ran gift shops and used the railroad to deliver “fancy goods” to be sold at the grand resort hotels. Both became famous for their garden seeds, packaged in envelopes printed in Canterbury.

Like most of the Shaker villages in America, the second half of the 19th century saw their membership erode as men, in particular, chose to leave the community for life and work in the Big City, leaving behind a village of mostly women and children to work the fields and produce the merchandise the Shakers relied on to remain financially stable.

Canterbury Shaker Village Canterbury, NH In the late 1950s, Bud Thompson, a singer looking for songs, visited Canterbury and in 1959, the sisters invited him and his family to move in to help them give tours and maintain the place. The next year, he worked with them to establish the village as a museum. Thus, decades before the last sister died in 1992, a nonprofit was already dedicated to preserving 200 years of Shaker life in Canterbury.

Today, the museum at Canterbury interprets its Shaker life through its exhibits, 30 historic buildings, extensive gardens, network of nature trails, programs, and tours. It is also a unique resource for learning about early Shaker community planning and design as well as the many periods of Shaker life.

The Canterbury Shaker Village archives consist of materials generated, received, or purchased by the Canterbury Shakers over their 200-year history. Archival holdings include approximately 10,000 photographic images and 35,000 manuscript items. The museum also has an enviable collection of Shaker objects, manuscripts, and photographs along with surviving architecture from all periods of its history.

The postcard-perfect setting hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, making it one of New Hampshire’s most popular cultural attractions. The Village offers both indoor and outdoor guided tours seven days a week.

Enfield Shaker Museum: “Chosen Vale”
Enfield, NH

Enfield Shaker Museum: “Chosen Vale” Enfield, NH

Founded in 1793, the village in Enfield, New Hampshire, known as “Chosen Vale,” was the ninth of 18 Shaker communities to be established in this country. At its peak in the mid-19th century, the community was home to three “Families” of Shakers. Here, Brothers, Sisters, and children lived, worked, and worshiped. They practiced equality of the sexes and races, celibacy, pacifism, and communal ownership of property. To support themselves, the Enfield Shakers made brooms, buckets, spinning wheels, tubs, dry measures, and shirts. They also made and sold applesauce, maple syrup, herbs, medicines, and seeds.

Striving to create a heaven on earth, the Enfield Shakers built more than 100 buildings and farmed over 3,000 acres of fertile land. Its most noted structure was the Great Stone Dwelling, the largest-ever Shaker edifice and largest residential building north of Boston at the time it was completed in 1841 for the Church Family. It had four full stories and a total of six stories. Men and women lived in the building but entered doors specific for their gender to separate quarters.

In 1923, after 130 years of farming, manufacturing, and productive existence, declining membership forced the Shakers to close their community and put it up for sale, with the remaining members moving to the Canterbury community. In 1927, the Shakers sold the site to the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, an order of Catholic priests, ensuring the continued tradition of spiritual, communal life on the site. In 1985, the property changed hands again when the remaining buildings and grounds were purchased by a group of private investors in a move to restore the community into a living history museum.

Today, the Enfield Shaker Museum is a nonprofit, membership organization dedicated to interpreting and preserving the complex history of the Enfield, NH Shaker village. In 1979, Enfield Shaker Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District.

Over the decades and through the efforts and support of hundreds of volunteers, the Museum has purchased a number of the Village’s original historic structures, acres of its farmland and pastures, and an extensive collection of Shaker artifacts, all to preserve and share the story of the extraordinary people who once lived and worked in the Enfield Shaker community.

Visitors can participate in a full schedule of individual and family events, workshops, tours, exhibitions, and craft demonstrations, as well as enjoy the gardens’ many sights and smells, watch skilled artisans demonstrate their traditional crafts, learn the story of the Enfield Shakers through exhibitions of their furniture, tools, clothing, and historic photographs, and browse through the Shaker Store.

Hancock Shaker Village: The City of Peace
Pittsfield, MA

Hancock Shaker Village: The City of Peace Pittsfield, MA The Hancock community, the third of 18 major Shaker villages established in America, was formed in the late 1780s when nearly 100 Believers consolidated a community on land donated by local farmers who had converted to the Shaker movement. By the 1830s, under the leadership of Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, the Hancock community peaked in population with more than 300 Believers living on more than 3,000 acres, on which they erected communal dwelling houses, barns, workshops, and other buildings, and developed a large and successful farm. With the 1826 Round Stone Barn as the center of its thriving dairy industry and many acres cultivated in medicinal herbs, vegetables, fruits, and other crops, the Hancock Shakers enjoyed a simple, peaceful, and hard-working life. They named their utopian village The City of Peace, and organized the large community into six smaller communal groups known as Families for efficiency of work, worship, and administration.

Eventually, forces outside the community, including the industrial revolution and the shifting of America from a rural to an urban society, worked against their continued growth and stability. By the early 1900s, with dwindling converts, the Shaker population at Hancock declined to about 50 Believers, most of them Sisters and orphan girls who had been adopted by the community. Eventually, excess land was sold and many buildings were destroyed. Concerned citizens stepped in to preserve the Village in the 1960s.

Hancock Shaker Village: The City of Peace Pittsfield, MA Today, Hancock Shaker Village is a landmark destination of 750 acres, 20 historic Shaker buildings, and over 22,000 Shaker artifacts. On the National Historic Register, it is the most comprehensively interpreted Shaker site in the world, and the oldest working farm in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

Period-attired historical interpreters share their knowledge of Shaker life with visitors as they tour the community’s historic buildings and 50 room settings that showcase a premier collection of Shaker furniture, crafts, and tools. These exhibitions accent the full range of Shaker daily life and show the Village’s collection as the Shakers would have used it.

Hancock Shaker Village is also a working farm, as it was back in the day. The Shakers made their farms into models of efficiency and innovation through agricultural experimentation and wise use of technology. Visitors can experience the realization of their vision in the Village’s actively-managed herb gardens, heirloom vegetable gardens, and a barn full of heritage livestock that populates the fields.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill Harrodsburg, Kentucky Three Shaker missionaries, John Meacham, Issachar Bates, and Benjamin Seth Youngs, left Mount Lebanon, New York on New Year’s Day in 1805 and traveled on foot to Kentucky. In August of that year, they found three Kentuckians who were willing to listen to their testimony—Elisha Thomas, Samuel Banta, and Henry Banta—who soon became the first Kentucky Shaker converts. Within a short time, Believers began moving to Elisha Thomas’ 140-acre Mercer County farm, and two years later to a nearby hilltop village they named Pleasant Hill.

The Pleasant Hill Shakers were hardworking farmers – first or second-generation descendants of pioneers who settled the early 1800s Kentucky River frontier. They were accustomed to overcoming hardships by using strong will, ingenuity, and determination. The venture flourished and by 1823, there were 491 Shakers at Pleasant Hill with land holdings of approximately 4,500 acres. Over a 105-year span, the Shakers constructed more than 260 structures of all kinds, including a municipal water system, one of the earliest such systems in Kentucky.

As early as 1816, the Pleasant Hill Shakers were producing enough surpluses of brooms, cooper ware, preserves, packaged seeds, and other products to begin regular trading trips to New Orleans via the Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers. The Shakers’ devotion to conservation, excellence, and productivity also led them to improve the quality of their livestock by importing bloodstock. They purchased a bull from England in conjunction with Henry Clay and owned one of America’s largest herds of registered Durham Shorthorn cattle. Pleasant Hill became a leading agricultural experimental station.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill Harrodsburg, Kentucky As the Civil War began, the society felt the tension of a border state where neighbors and families were divided over the issues of secession and slavery. The Shakers believed in the emancipation of the slaves, but as pacifists, they refused to bear arms. Their Federal neighbors could not understand the Shakers’ pacifist views. Secessionists were equally intolerant of the Shakers, who offered African-Americans full brotherhood in their community as early as 1811.

Like other Shaker Villages in states across America, the Pleasant Hill community went into decline after the 1860s – a victim of changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution. After the Civil War, the community’s population remained fairly stable at more than 300, and the economy somewhat improved, but not for long. By 1886, the community was in debt, and its membership was composed of mostly the very young and very old. By 1910, Pleasant Hill was forced to close its doors as an active religious society, and the land, buildings, and furnishings passed into private hands and turned into a small country town called “Shakertown.” In 1961, a private nonprofit organization, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, was founded to restore the historic property and turn it into “3,000 Acres of Discovery.”

South Union Shaker Village
Auburn, Kentucky

To expand their reach south and west, the Shakers moved to Auburn in southern Kentucky in 1807 to establish a Shakertown they called South Union.

Due to its location, South Union Shaker Village was inhabited by American southerners — people from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. Their southern influence can be seen in the look and feel of South Union architecture, furniture, and fancy goods. At its peak, this Shaker village was comprised of 225 buildings, including massive dormitories, subsidiary shops and outbuildings, barns and stables, a mill complex that was unequaled in the region, 350 members, and 6,000 acres of farmland land. Several influential figures visited South Union during the 19th century, including President James Monroe, General Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Sam Houston.

To supplement their income, the South Union Shakers produced and sold their goods throughout the South, showing off their ingenuity and entrepreneurship. They purchased a small printing press to mark their seed bags for sale at market, raised silkworms and used their silk to weave handkerchiefs and neckerchiefs, and built a flatboat on the Red River to be able to ship their goods down the Mississippi to New Orleans to market, and in 1830 started large scale cheesemaking. They were also widely regarded for their straw hats and bonnets and preserves made from their berry garden. However, despite their economic success selling their goods, declining membership and post-Civil War economic problems led to the closing of the South Union community in 1922, making it the Shaker’s longest-lived western Shaker community.

South Union Shaker Village Auburn, Kentucky Anticipating their imminent closing, the South Union Shakers began to sell off the furniture, household items, textiles, and tools they had produced and used throughout the 19th century, culminating in a 1922 auction that attracted thousands and dispersed items from the life and lifestyle of the South Union Shaker settlement throughout the south.

It was not until the late 1950s that collecting and re-uniting these now historic artifacts of South Union’s history and material culture became a preservation effort for Mrs. Curry Hall, who opened the first public Shaker Museum in 1960 with her own collection. When word got out, items purchased at this 1922 auction began to find their way back to Auburn and helped to shape what is today the largest collection of Southern Shaker furniture and personal possessions in the United States. These original artifacts now fill 40 rooms inside the recently restored 1824 Centre Family dwelling at the heart of the South Union Village Museum, the majority of which are original to the community and its members.

In 1965, a non-profit organization called “Shakertown Revisited” was formed and in 1972, it purchased two buildings and about three acres of land on the original South Union Village site to house their now growing collection, and tell the story of the Shakers and the South Union community. Today, the Museum consists of 500 acres of original farmland and nine original structures.

Other Village Sites to visit: There are an additional four active sites that are available to visitors seeking to discover more about the lives of the Shakers

Watervliet Shaker Historic District | Albany, NY

America’s first Shaker settlement, the Church Family site is where the Shaker Heritage Society’s offices are located. Set in the heart of the 770-acre Historic District, the property includes nine remaining Shaker buildings, an herb garden, open fields, an apple orchard, Ann Lee Pond nature preserve, and the Shaker cemetery where the founder, Ann Lee is buried.

Mount Lebanon Shaker Village | New Lebanon, NY

While Watervliet was the first gathering of Shakers, the Mount Lebanon community was the first to be formally and deliberately organized into a communal living arrangement. At its peak, this was the largest Shaker village, comprising over 6,000 acres and 100 buildings. It was also the spiritual center of the Shaker movement. The Museum contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Shaker objects, archives, and books.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum | New Gloucester, ME

Established in 1783, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village is home to the only active Shaker Community in the world. The Museum was first organized in 1931 by Sisters Iona Sedgley and Ethel Peacock in hopes of educating the public about the truths of Shakerism.

The Shaker Museum’s collection is the only one created by Shakers to represent their culture through firsthand interpretation and is the largest Maine Shaker collection representing the longest timeline (1740s ‐ present), and the world’s only anthropological collection.

Alfred Shaker Museum | Alfred, ME

Like Sabbathday Lake, Alfred was established around 1793. Famously, Alfred is where, according to Shaker tradition, Brother Joseph Brackett composed the song Simple Gifts. The Shakers at Alfred farmed and tended their orchards, gardens, dairy, kitchen, and shops. In time, hundreds of Shakers called Alfred home. The Village was closed in 1931 when the remaining Shakers moved to Sabbathday Lake.