Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The American Shakers

The magnificent round stone barn at Hancock Shaker Village

Two summers ago we went to spend a few nights in New Gloucester Maine with our friends, the last remaining Shakers in Sabbathday Lake (four at that time). We had gone up for a visit as Sister Frances is our youngest son's godmother and also because I was to photograph their pantries for The Pantry. While we haven't been back since, we have visited Pleasant Hill several times in the past two years, outside of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and last week we stopped at the Hancock Shaker Village outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts on our way home from the Chaiwalla Tea Room (see previous blog entry).

My husband wanted me to photograph the famous round barn to show his Mennonite friends in Kentucky (one of whom has built a round barn out of modern materials and who would like to build one for us one day--slowly and phased, of course). Built out of limestone in 1826 for housing 52 cows and hay, and an ease for milking, it is the only round barn that the Shakers built in any of their communities. Inside it is cathedral-like in its expanse of timbering and solid stonework, something I find endearing about many old barns. [According to the Hancock Shaker Village website, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who summered nearby and often entertained Boston area literati, had a footrace in this structure.]

The dwelling house (left) and poultry house at Hancock Shaker Village

We hadn't been there in about ten years and, while a beautiful Sunday afternoon on June 1st, there were many more staff there than tourists. I fear this may be the sign of the times with increased gas prices and fewer families exposing their children to historic-minded day trips. But that's beside the point and clearly a rumination for a cooler day (it is 95 with high humidity in our part of New Hampshire today so I'm a little on the grumpy side of things).

I was delighted to discover the canning room, pantries and kitchen, all located in the cool stone cellar of the Hancock dwelling house

What sparked today's blog was that I was putting something in our fridge on this very hot and humid day--which got me thinking about the cool stone kitchen and ample ice house at Hancock Shaker Village--and noticed a magnet that lists the tenets of the American Shakers, a copy of a framed sign that is at Sabbathday Lake. Apart from the celibate lifestyle, which clearly meant the future end of the order after they stopped adopting children and taking in entire families (and now with three remaining Shakers, the future is insecure at best and some would say already a former Utopian society--new Shakers are accepted but after careful consideration), these principles are fascinating in any era. In their credo of "hands to work, and hearts to God" and their simple, non-judgmental but separate lifestyles, Shaker followers were perhaps more Christ-like than most organized religions of today. But that, too, is beside the point (again, I am blaming the humidity and my crankiness, and besides, who wants to listen to someone who learns anything salient from a fridge magnet!).

The meetinghouse at Sabbathday Lake still holds Shaker-led services

I had not realized, for example, despite knowing the last Shakers and attending services at Sabbathday, that they believe in the "Duality of the Deity: Father and Mother God, The Mighty Dual Spirit, Creator of Life, Light, Truth and Love." They also acknowledge(d) a duality between Christ and Ann Lee, their founder, which other religions have also done between a deity and a mortal (Mormonism and Christian Science come to mind, and well before Christianity, there was Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion of duality).

The other principles for Shaker life and communal living are based in equality of the sexes, labor, and property. What an advanced notion for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the height of the order. The Shakers would eventually settle in seven states--including Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana--after Ann Lee came to this country in 1774 for religious freedom from England. Several communities are still open as historically interpreted sites, including those mentioned above and Canterbury Shaker Village and the Enfield Shaker Museum, both in New Hampshire, as well as a few others.

An historic photograph of the interior of the Hancock dwelling house reveals the Shaker appreciation of symmetry and the duality of form following function [image from Hancock Shaker Village display]

Architecturally speaking, the Shakers embraced simplicity and ingeniousness of design, usually favoring symmetry and even the latest technology, as they did the dumbwaiter, at left. [Two identical dumbwaiters in two corners of the symmetrical kitchen lead to the men's and women's sides of the equally ordered dining room upstairs. And Shakers were into lots of build-ins, cupboards, nooks, and storage pantries as everything had a purpose and a place.]

Perhaps a balanced and ordered design, with two entries on most buildings and into most common areas, symbolized the duality of their thought and lifestyle as much as it was for practical purposes of separation of the sexes. Even though they believed in equality of the sexes, because they were a celibate order, living, dining and working was largely done without interaction between them. Entire families who joined were even separated.

This summer take your children or your grandchildren or your own friends to a Shaker community or other historic property. Carpool, save up your gas money or any money that you might have spent at a water park or amusement park or a trip to a mall (each unctuous in its own way--ok, there's that humidity crankiness setting in again). Make it a destination. I was so disheartened to see such low attendance at what is obviously a well-run museum and magnificent set of buildings, complete with many original contents and courteous interpreters who didn't hover too much.

My favorite building at Hancock Village is the garden tool shed

This is another grumbly aside. I once worked for an historic house museum organization where one of the curators, a bit older than myself, actually said that if she had her way the houses that we were interpreting and "keeping" would be mothballed for scholarly use only and closed to the public. [The specific house I worked at has been more or less mothballed since I worked there, but that is another grumbly aside: get thee to a Shaker ice house, Catherine!] I was shocked by this notion but she is probably not alone in that sentiment, her argument being that if the general public is kept away from preserved buildings and their contents, their longevity will be assured without the wear-and-tear. But what of the education and awareness of these objects and places? House museums and related historic sites need to remain accessible, interesting, and even savvy to survive. People want to see how others lived in the past and experiencing the buildings and their contents, although in need of perpetual preservation, is the best way to do that.

I know we are not alone as parents in wanting to bring our children to historic places, houses, farms and monuments. We live in an historic house in New Hampshire and, until we build our utopian farm, a modular in Kentucky (ok, a big five-bedroom doublewide). I certainly hope we are not a dwindling number of people who care about these great American treasures, apart from the people who curate them. What better way to teach history: through the actual places where history happened and is preserved.


Judy said...

Hi from Frankfort! I was blog hopping and found yours. I love reading about the Shakers and have been to Shakertown in Harrodsburg. Have you ever read the book "The Believers" by Kentucky author, Janice Holt Giles? Thanks for a great read and pictures.

Sarah said...

I'm continuing to poke about your blog-- I also spent a lot of time in my youth at both Hancock Shaker Village and Pleasant Hill as my parents worked in museums and were best friends with the Hancock director at the time.