Living a Tradition

At a handful of sites scattered across New England, Shaker communities transport the past into the present

Shaker House (Richard Robinson)
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When Arnold was 16, in Massachusetts, raised a Methodist, he wrote to this community with a historical question. "I was so impressed with the response that I started corresponding," he says. In high school, he was unsure what he wanted to become—an anthropologist? Archaeologist? Chef? He decided, at the age of 21, to become a Shaker.

Sister Frances wrote Shaker Your Plate: Of Shaker Cooks and Cooking, and she rules the kitchen. Brother Wayne Smith, who is tall and strapping and looks vaguely like a young Garrison Keillor, tends the community's 50 sheep. "We raise the sheep for their wool, to supply our shop with yarn," he says. "They're working lawn ornaments." He also tends two steers, Malachi and Amos. "We'll eat them sooner or later," he predicts.

He grew up in South Portland, Maine, nominally a Baptist. "I went to church at gunpoint, usually," he says. But a Shaker brother was teaching Latin at his school, earning extra income for Sabbathday Lake. "I actually opened my Latin book and studied," Brother Wayne says. He began visiting Sabbathday Lake at age 14, discovering a "gift" for working with animals. He, too, decided to join, at the age of 17.

Shaker industries have dwindled away

Besides farming, the community supports itself as Shakers always have: with this and that. For instance, the Shakers turned unused buildings into a museum. Now 6,000 visitors each year tour this isolated Maine community located north of Portland and south of Lewiston and Auburn.

"I'm the printer, and we earn a little selling our publications, and also our jams and jellies and pickles and yarns," Brother Arnold says. They market herbs as well. But many Shaker industries have dwindled away. "Our great mill used to turn out shingles and cider on the first level, and the second level was a machine shop, and the attic had a carding mill; we had a sawmill and cooper's shop, in addition," Brother Arnold says. And Sister Frances adds: "It was built in 1853 and operated until 1941, when all the hired people went off to war. Now its granite foundations make for a magnificent ruin!" But the community maintains a tree farm and gravel pits, and it leases out its lakeshore lands. The Shakers lease out their orchards, too, but they still keep some apples, Cortlands and McIntoshes, to sell.

"We're not a wealthy community, by any means, but there are many causes we contribute to—for a long time we've been particularly concerned with hunger in the world," Sister Frances tells us. Brother Arnold lectures across the United States and overseas. "It's just to tell people what we believe and how we live, and that we're alive."

A work ethic which might be called "anthillism"

We are asked back for supper, the day's lightest meal. Dispensing with old ways, the genders sup together. Afterward, as it grows dark, we sit talking on a porch with the brothers and sisters and an ebullient Baptist minister from Mississippi, an old friend of the Shakers. Watching the moon rise, we find ourselves recounting our first encounter with Shakerism, a few weeks ago, during a visit to the Shaker village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, now a museum.

We had been invited to stay in Canterbury's brick trustees' building. Such roadside structures served as offices where a few designated Shaker trustees met the world's people to buy and sell and arrange shipment of Shaker products. Our room featured the built-in cabinets and drawers that Shakers favored, for efficiency. Through our windows we could see the village, atop a hillside meadow. Meetinghouse, dwelling house, shops, sheds—they seemed to embody the Shakers' best-known song, Simple Gifts. But they also expressed another Shaker trait, an all-consuming work ethic which might be called "anthillism."


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