Many people come to the living history museum in Pittsfield, Mass., out of curiosity about a communal, celibate religious group that thrived in the first half of the 1800s but has only a few living members today.
As the turbine sent water gushing, Bev Corbett admired how the 19th century Shakers powered their wood shop and laundry in 1858.
“These people built a community on the power of water and solar,” said Corbett, who visited Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield last month with her two children. “We’ve fixed the world in order to break it. We need to find a way to use the old technologies for new ones.”
Like Corbett, many people come to the living history museum out of curiosity about a communal, celibate religious group that thrived in the first half of the 1800s but has only a few living members today. They may be familiar with Shaker chairs or boxes or the hymn “Simple Gifts,” but know little about the people who created them.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Corbett of Norwood. “Now I can see how they lived.”
Fifty years ago, only three Shakers remained at Hancock Shaker Village and their buildings were dilapidated. That’s when locals formed a nonprofit preservation group and purchased the 1,000-acre property for $125,000. Today, the community that began in 1790 is a National Heritage Landmark, with 18 restored historic buildings, heirloom medicinal and vegetable gardens, heritage breed farm animals, and 22,000 examples of Shaker furniture, craft, tools and clothing.
From April through October, about 70,000 people visit, joining in guided tours that explore the historic buildings and barn, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture. There are demonstrations in box-making and other crafts, special programs in interior design, wood working, sustainability and food, as well as family events.
“This is a place not only to preserve the Shakers’ story, but to find meaning in the Shakers’ beliefs and culture for our time,” said president Ellen Spear. “The Shakers made an extraordinary choice to gather together in community to live a principled life.”
Unlike the Amish, the Shakers embraced new technologies. Work was part of their worship, and they tried to find more efficient ways to complete tasks, said marketing assistant Suzanne Nieman. They invented the flat broom and tumbler washing machine, and operated the first mail-order seed and pharmaceutical businesses. They were among the first to own a car in the county, and they designed buildings that maximized natural interior space and natural light.
“They were totally into innovation,” Nieman said. “Their motto was ‘Hands to work, and Hearts to God.’ They were trying to perfect everything on earth that would prepare their entry into heaven.”
In the Meeting House and the Brick Dwelling, visitors learn that everyone rose at 4:30 a.m. in the summer and 5:30 a.m. in the winter. Men and women had different jobs, but they were considered equals. If a person was wayward, elders tried to change the behavior through persuasion, rather than punishment. If that didn’t work, the person was asked to leave the community, but given tools, food and money.
The Shaker legacy also includes thousands of songs and dances, a few of which two dozen adults and children recently learned during their visit. The Shakers sang while working and danced while worshipping (the source of the name The Shakers), believing song and dance were received from God and expressed their devotion.
“The dance was a great way to get kids to participate,” said James Niblock, a Colgate College music instructor who visited with his wife and four children, ages 1-10. “I had not been aware that music was so incorporated into their daily life.”
Later, the children played in the Discovery Room, watched demonstrations in spinning, visited farm animals and wandered through the carpentry, blacksmithing, tanning, broom making, and cooking areas.
In the buildings, the Shaker principles of hard work, community, simplicity, craftsmanship and innovation are manifest.
“I’m impressed by the way they did things,” said Elaine Lapp-Judge of Atlanta, who became interested in the Shakers after seeing Shaker objects in the homes of friends. “I especially like the chairs.”
The Shakers built furniture and interior rooms with clean, straight lines, yet they also designed a round barn, one of the most impressive buildings to explore. The round shape allowed wagons to efficiently unload hay and exit without backing up and provided central hay storage for the circle of 52 dairy cow stalls. Floor openings allowed manure to drop into a pit below, and a vented cupola at the top allowed moisture and heat to escape.
At their height in the early to mid 1800s, the Shakers lived in 18 communities from Maine to Kentucky, with about 200 people in the Hancock Village. But they were celibate, and they failed to bring in enough children in need of adoption to perpetuate themselves.
As Hancock Shaker Village celebrates its 50th anniversary, it focuses on the continuing Shaker influence.
More Information: www.hancockshakervillage.org.
Patriot Ledger writer Jody Feinberg may be reached at email@example.com.