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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In the early 1800s Joseph Meacham, who had assumed leadership, regimented Shaker communities down to meals. They must be finished quickly, the food consumed in silence. Canterbury's president, historian Scott Swank, told us such rules expressed a perfectionist impulse. "Renovating our 1793 dwelling house, we've found that even details hidden in walls, where nobody could see them, were of superior construction," he said. "For instance, ceilings hid beams, but the Shakers still planed beams smooth."

Buildings were color-coded. "Meetinghouses were white, dwelling houses were French yellow, work buildings a darker yellow, agricultural buildings were unpainted or red, and they painted their roofs red, so there were a lot of yellow buildings with red roofs," Swank told us. "They also color-coded interiors—Prussian blue in meetinghouses, red for working areas, yellow for shops and dwelling houses." Canterbury painted its sisters' workshop brilliant orange yellow, with vermilion trim, maybe to offset the New England winter's gloom.

Everyone, they believed, is equal

"This was a work-oriented community," Swank told us. "They expressed themselves in activity, worshipping by dancing and singing, rather than sitting down and listening to a sermon, for instance, and they were somewhat anti-intellectual in their early years, and they were highly regulated," he said. Shakers had a deeply humane side, too, accepting into their communities former slaves, Jews, Catholics—everyone, they believed, is equal.

Nor did a Shaker bonnet and cloak transform you into an emotionless worker ant. In Canterbury's newly restored dwelling house, we met Alberta MacMillan Kirkpatrick, tall, white-haired, smiling, seated on a Shaker rocker in the room where she was raised, back for a visit. "Sister Betsy lived in the next room, when I was 11; she had a bad kidney problem and didn't walk well," she told us. "So I'd tap on her door to see if she'd like me to visit and she'd tell me stories." On her 7th birthday, Kirkpatrick, from Boston, saw her mother buried. Her father gave her to a succession of six unpleasant foster families, the final one abusive. In 1929 he telephoned Canterbury, asking the Shakers to take his daughter. They said they were not taking anymore children.

"One sister, Marguerite, was going to receive nothing for Christmas because each sister was supposed to list three possible gifts she'd like, and Marguerite, who was about 40, had written—1. a little girl, 2. a little girl, and 3. a little girl," Kirkpatrick told us. She became Sister Marguerite's Christmas present.

There was plenty of time for play

"We drove up on December 19 in my father's old Buick, with no heater, and it was snowy and icy," she remembers. Sister Marguerite erupted out of a door in the village and ran down the walk, her Shaker cloak flying in the wind. Marguerite dropped to her knees in front of the child. "She hugged me, saying, ‘Oh, Bertie, I thought you'd never arrive!'"

Kirkpatrick told us: "Every morning I'd get up and look out these windows and I couldn't wait to start the day, because I was so free." She attended a school taught by Sister Marguerite. There was plenty of time for play. Helped by the sisters, the ten Shaker girls put on plays. "And we celebrated every holiday, putting up a maypole and dancing around it, July Fourth, Memorial Day," Kirkpatrick told us. "On Halloween we took over the laundry, and one year Sister Marguerite got an old gray cape and made a face on it, and held it up on a mop stick so she looked 12 feet tall."

Shaker dancing took on a new meaning: "Sister Aida taught us to fox-trot and waltz and do the two-step." Kirkpatrick drew headshakes for stilt-walking and vaulting down the stairs. But, as disciplinarians, Shakers were softies. "They were so lenient—I climbed into the bell tower, which we weren't supposed to do, and the only discipline was, ‘Bertie, please don't do that again,'" Kirkpatrick said. After she graduated at age 16, Kirkpatrick began real work in the community, rising at 5:00 every morning to help bake apple and mince pies, along with eggs, bacon and home fries for breakfast. She shoveled snow and swept floors. She left at age 18, but returned every year for Marguerite's birthday.


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