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Shaker House (Richard Robinson)

Living a Tradition

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

"We've dug up stuff you wouldn't expect"

Later, behind the trustees' building, we talked with archaeologist David Starbuck, who has been excavating at Canterbury since 1978, when he was a professor at Boston University. Today, as he probed the remains of a blacksmith's shop, he told us what his excavations have revealed.

"People want Shakers to be a certain way, but they had strict periods and relaxed periods," he told us. "We've dug up stuff you wouldn't expect, like tobacco pipes, beer and whiskey bottles, perfume bottles, hair restorers, and combs—they seemed really concerned about their appearance." Shakers have proved much like the rest of us.

It's important, too, to remember the altruism that underlay the Shaker sense of community. Canterbury's curator, Sheryl Hack, had told us that during the 1800s, when social services were meager at best, it was not solely religious fervor that brought converts. A sick farmer, unable to plow or milk, might face disaster, but as a Shaker he had a community to back him up. Women then had scant options for work, and might be forced to marry for financial security—becoming a Shaker could be attractive. But after the Civil War, as society's options increased, ever fewer men joined. Sisters had to hire outside help. Eventually, women, too, their options broadening, stopped converting. By 1960, only Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake remained viable.

During the 1960s, the Shakers feared that an influx of counterculture people, drawn to communal living—but not religion—would distort Shakerism or even usurp the community's resources. So, at Canterbury, where the last brother had died, they decided to pull the plug, thereby ending their tradition. But Sabbathday Lake defiantly kept taking in converts, like Arnold Hadd and Wayne Smith. Un-Shakerlike bitterness flared between the two communities.

It looks like a UFO

Above all, Starbuck explains, Shakers were quintessentially American: efficiency addicts and prolific inventors, with a business knack. To learn more, we visited Hancock Shaker Village, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1948 the Central Ministry moved from Mount Lebanon to Hancock. In 1960 it moved to Canterbury. Hancock became a museum, teaching the world about Shakers.

We particularly wanted to see Hancock's huge, gray-stone barn, which is round. "In 1826 the Shakers here had one of New England's largest dairy herds, about 200 head, when most of their neighbors had a herd of, maybe, 3," Cloud Kennedy, a Hancock historical interpreter, told us as we gazed at the barn, which looks like a stone UFO mother ship. Improbably woolly merino sheep wandered by. "The Shakers were among the first to import them, around 1831," Kennedy said. She noted that Hancock, in its heyday, had 60 buildings and 4,000 acres, while nearby Mount Lebanon had 6,000 acres. "The size of that, and this much weirdness and this much prosperity, terrified the people around them, so there was harassment and there was arson," she said.

This round barn replaced an older barn that burned. By way of ramps, cows or horses walked directly into either of the barn's lower two levels. Walking inside ourselves, we almost gasped. Stanchions circle a vast open core. Far overhead, at the building's apex, a cupola acts as a vent. Rafters radiate from the cupola to support the round roof. Sunbeams illuminate an intricate array of vertical masts supporting the floors, the rafters, the roof. "They built their houses like barns and their barns like cathedrals," Cloud Kennedy said.

But this cathedral was practical. Kennedy described the brothers bringing in their herd for the morning milking. Each cow, unsupervised, walks around the outer circle to its own stanchion and pokes its head through, attracted by the core's 400 tons of hay, tossed down from above. "Because the barn is round, the cows' heads are closer together than their rears, making more room for milking," Kennedy told us. "Meanwhile, the brothers can chuck the manure down to a manure pit, for spreading onto the fields." She added: "The brothers can milk all the cows and be done before breakfast."

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