Above all, avoid rushing. "Do all your work as though you had 1000 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
Heaven and Earth are threads of one loom"
Follow us on a virtual tour of the Shaker communities visited by our authors. As we make our way eastward from the Hudson Valley, through the Berkshires, and northward into Maine, we'll encounter a museum and five quaint Shaker communities within a four- to five-hour drive of each other. Our guest curator, June Sprigg, will provide colorful insight into what you can expect to see at each site. We'll take you first to Watervliet, New York, near Albany, the first Shaker settlement in America. Close by is Old Chatham, never a Shaker community, but one of the best Shaker museums you'll find. Then, farther east, off Route 20, is Mount Lebanon, at one time the Central Ministry for the whole Shaker society. At the junction of Routes 20 and 41, in western Massachusetts, is Hancock, the site of the Round Stone Barn, one of the most unusual agricultural buildings anywhere. A couple of hours northeastward, off Interstate 93, is Canterbury, a National Historic Landmark, with its homey Creamery Restaurant. Farther north in Maine, on State Route 26, is Sabbathday Lake, the home of the last eight Shakers.
Modern visitors to Shaker villages will enjoy knowing that they are just the most recent among many thousands of travelers—both Shakers and the "world's people"—to the same destinations for more than 200 years. From the early 19th century, and for most of their history, Shakers welcomed visitors to their neat, productive homes. It was the best way to show the world that their way of life was peaceful, successful and just maybe the answer for some of those pilgrims—after all, the celibate Shakers depended entirely on converts to keep their societies alive. Nineteenth-century tourists, from Charles Dickens to Nathaniel Hawthorne, came to see what was what, buy a souvenir (useful, of course) in the shops, tour the facilities and perhaps have a meal—just like you! The highlight of any visit was the Sunday public worship service, where lines of dancing Shakers astonished visitors quite unused to seeing anything so unconventional, so active (and, thought many, so unseemly) in church.
If you travel to a Shaker village today, don't be disappointed if those dancing Shakers linger only in spirit. Only one Shaker village remains as a living community, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, where a small but energetic group combine the traditions of their heritage with the practical amenities of the 21st century. Many of the other sites are now museums. But the modern traveler with an interest in authenticity will appreciate that these villages are made of buildings erected by their original inhabitants in situ. These are not museum villages assembled of structures from here and there by 20th-century collectors, like a life-size toy village under the Christmas tree, but authentic artifacts of another time and place.
- June Sprigg
Where It All Began:
Shaker Heritage Society, Watervliet, New York
"We'll make you kindly welcome."
The community at Watervliet, on the outskirts of Albany, always remained dear to Shakers' hearts because it was the first communal home in America of Mother Ann Lee and her intrepid little band of followers, who settled here during the winter of 1775-76 and built the first communal dwelling house in 1779. Mother Ann did not live long in her new home, which proved to be less of a haven from religious persecution than she had hoped, but the knowledge that she had lived there made Watervliet especially meaningful for Shakers. Like them, you can pay a call to her grave, marked with a simple headstone (unlike them, you may have to overlook the noise of the crowd from a nearby baseball stadium or the roar of a jet from Albany's airport.) Today, Watervliet offers visitors exhibits in the restored meetinghouse. The rest of the property has been a state residence for many decades.
- June Sprigg
Hours and Admission:
Open year-round Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 A.M. to 4 P.M., except the first two weeks of January. Guided tours on Saturdays, June through October, at 11:30 A.M. and 1:30 P.M. Admission is $3; children under 12 are free.
Directions to the Village:
From Exit 4 of the Northway (I-87), go west 1.3 miles on Albany Shaker Road (Route 151). At the stop sign, proceed straight into the grounds of the Ann Lee Home. The second building on your right is the Shaker Meeting House.