A community built by members of a utopian religious order is preserved in western Massachusetts.
By Richard Bauman
In 1783 it was called “The City of Peace,” and even now its location in the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts complements that description. But today it’s known as Hancock Shaker Village. It is like a bubble of time from the 18th and 19th centuries, encasing the world of the Shakers “” an unorthodox sect that is as fascinating now as it was unusual in its heyday.
The Shakers are renowned today mainly for the superior handcrafted furniture they left behind and the celibate lifestyle they practiced. But they were so much more than either of these. They were herbalists, farmers, and inventors; were fervently religious, yet remarkably creative; and lived in homogeneous communities apart from “the world.” Nonetheless, they sold their products to the world, and bought worthwhile goods from it.
The Shakers strove for perfection in their lives. Thus, finding ways to do things better and faster and producing superior goods were steps toward perfection “” and religious experiences for them as well.
The proper name of the sect was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. It began in Manchester, England, with a group of Quakers who retained the type of trembling behavior during worship that the rest of the group did not. In the 1740s the “Shaking Quakers” split from mainstream Quakerism. “Shakers” originally was a derisive name given them by outsiders, because frenzied dancing and shaking were part of their worship services.
They were thought odd not just because of their shaking, but also because they practiced strict celibacy. Shakers didn’t marry, and married couples who joined the sect lived apart. Children became Shakers either along with their parents or when orphaned and adopted by Shaker communities.
Ann Lee, the woman credited with founding the American Shaker group, arrived in New York from England along with her husband and seven followers in 1774. Eventually the Shakers established 19 communities in the Northeast, as well as Ohio and Kentucky. When the sect was at its peak, in the years just prior to the Civil War, it had approximately 6,000 members. The City of Peace was the third Shaker community founded in America.
Of today’s remaining Shaker villages, Hancock is among the most extensive. Situated about five miles west of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and about 20 miles east of Albany, New York, on U.S. 20, Hancock Shaker Village encompasses more than 1,000 acres. But of primary interest to most visitors are the more than 20 preserved and restored buildings and gardens contained within about three acres adjacent to the visitors center.
Although each building at Hancock is interesting and has its own special history, three specific buildings provide excellent insight into Shaker living.
In the five-story red brick residence hall known as the Brick Dwelling, visitors can see that forsaking the world didn’t mean Shakers lived in hermitlike discomfort. The building’s rich wood banisters, highly polished floors, softly colored walls, and overall spotlessness accurately reflect the living conditions they enjoyed.
The building was designed by one of the members of the group, and many of them shared in its construction in 1830. Elder William Deming, who supervised the building project, wrote about it in 1832: “We commenced our building and in ten weeks from the placing of the first stone in the cellar, the house was neatly laid up and the roof put on . . . The work is well done.”
Deming kept excellent records of the materials used to build the Brick Dwelling. He noted that, among other items, 350,000 bricks, 895 feet of sawed blue limestone, 100 large doors and 95 windows, and 3,194 squares of glass went into its construction. How much did the building cost? $8,000.
Each room in the Brick Dwelling is a still life in Shaker society. For example, the sisters’ and brothers’ retiring rooms had minimal furnishings and a few personal articles needed to live a simple, orderly life. Each typically contained a single rocking chair. In addition to individual beds, a table, chairs, and one or two candle stands were permitted “” and that was about it. The rooms were used only for sleeping and for reading religious materials before and after meals.
Shaker men and women worked and lived apart. Nevertheless, the group maintained equality of the sexes. Women had just as much say in the community’s functions and decisions as men.
Cleanliness was definitely next to godliness in Shaker communities. Ann Lee declared: “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in heaven.” Brothers and sisters were expected to keep their rooms spotless. Shakers were first-class organizers and maintained clutter-free surroundings. A row of wooden pegs was installed on every wall in each room. Clothes were hung on the pegs, as were chairs and other small objects.
The kitchen, located at ground level, was the epitome of efficiency for its era, complete with ovens for baking multiple loaves of bread and a dozen pies at a time. Several huge iron caldrons still hang there; they were permanently installed for preparing vegetables and stews. The kitchen even had running water.
Probably the most intriguing, and without question the most photographed, building at Hancock Shaker Village is the Round Stone Barn. Three stories tall, with a circumference of 270 feet, the building was designed for maximum efficiency in feeding cows, milking them, and cleaning up the 52 stalls.
Wagons entered the third floor and deposited hay in the haymow at the center of the barn for easy feed distribution. Trap doors in the floor of the stalls let manure fall to the basement, where it could be loaded into wagons.
The barn does not look exactly the same as it appeared when first built “” it originally had a cone-shaped roof. But the building caught fire in 1864 (spontaneous combustion of the hay may be to blame), and the roof was rebuilt to its current configuration.
The Laundry/Machine Shop, built in 1790, is the oldest existing building at Hancock. It provides a glimpse at how some of the Shaker men and women worked in the service of their brothers and sisters and how they created a number of the products they sold to the world.
A machine shop occupies half of the building space, where tools used in the making of furniture, broom handles, and other wooden and metal implements are displayed. The lathes, saws, and other implements were truly “power tools,” connected to a water turbine by shafts and drive belts.
The other half of the building contains the laundry facilities. Laundry was washed on the first floor in wash machines and then hoisted to upper floors using a lift where it was hung to dry. Dry items were dropped through a chute into baskets on the first floor for ironing, folding, or hanging. Shaker ironing tables, irons, and clothing are displayed there.
Throughout the Hancock community, and all other Shaker communities, a division of labor was practiced. Some tasks were completed only by women, and others were assigned only to men. But whether a sister or brother was working in the fields, shops, or kitchen, one type of labor was not more highly esteemed than another. Labor assignments were periodically rotated as well. For example, a crew of sisters would work in the laundry for 30 days, and then another crew of sisters would take over.
Hancock visitors also tour workshops that were used for weaving, basket-making, and furniture building. Examples of the Shakers’ handcrafted items are displayed, including Shaker brooms. The flat broom, commonly used today, was invented by the sect, and demand soared in the 19th century.
The gardens at the Hancock community were used to grow crops for human and animal consumption, and for seeds. The Shakers had an enviable reputation for producing high-quality seeds “” one of their most renowned products. They packaged and sold seeds via mail order throughout the country. Shaker herbs, used for medicinal purposes, also were highly prized because of their consistent and outstanding quality. At one time at least 10 acres of land at the City of Peace were devoted to growing herbs. Today only a few hundred square feet are used to demonstrate some of them “” only a fraction of land that was under cultivation in the 19th century.
The Shakers, as a whole, were inventive people. A member of the group is credited with fabricating the first circular saw. Other items attributed to Shakers are a washing machine; condensed milk; the common clothespin; the one-horse wagon; metal writing pens; a side-hill plow; a pea sheller; silk-reeling equipment; a revolving oven; an improved wood-burning stove; bed rollers; and a machine for threshing and fertilizing “” to name just some.
For the infirm, Shakers created wheelchairs “” rocking chairs fitted with large wooden wheels. They also created “walking frames,” which were much like walkers used today, except made from wood.
It’s still debated whether the Shakers are to be credited with developing all of these items, however, because they rarely patented their inventions. Their ideas could be “re-invented” by others who claimed responsibility for creating them. One exception to their non-patenting philosophy was the Shaker washing machine. Refined over several decades, the Improved Washing Machine was patented in 1877. It resembled a long, enclosed sink counter with large compartments for washing and rinsing clothes. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was labor-saving.
Above all, the Shakers are best known for constructing fine, lasting furniture devoid of fancy designs and frills. “Let it be plain and simple,” was the Shaker canon, “(and) of good and substantial quality, unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability.” It isn’t unusual today for a simple genuine Shaker chair or table to spark a bidding war at an antiques auction. As experts point out, the Shakers saw no justifiable reason to have varying levels in quality of workmanship in the things they made. All work, and products, had to be equally well done “” and most often were.
At its peak in the 1830s, Hancock Shaker Village was home to approximately 300 residents. By the early 1900s, because of a lack of converts, its population declined to approximately 50 people, mostly women and orphaned girls. In 1960 the remaining Shakers sold the property to preservationists committed to maintaining the group’s heritage.
While the Shakers’ way of life can be summed up as “plain and simple,” it was not austere. They lived in comfortable surroundings, and for the most part were self-sufficient. They didn’t live in the world, but they didn’t totally divorce themselves from it, either. They used modern conveniences when it suited them, and even owned community automobiles in the early 20th century.
Hancock Shaker Village will help you to better understand the overall commitment the Shakers had to their way of life. They were people just like us, striving for perfection in an imperfect world.
Touring Hancock Shaker Village
The village is open daily year-round, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
During the summer/fall period, between Memorial Day and late October, hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visitors can view demonstrations of traditional Shaker crafts and trades in original workshops, fields, and gardens. Tours are self-guided during this period. Admission is $15 for adults and free for children under 18.
In winter/spring, from late October to Memorial Day weekend (through May 27, 2005), hours are 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and 90-minute guided tours are offered. Visitors see the Brick Dwelling and the 1826 Round Stone Barn. Other sights year-round include the Ken Burns film, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, as well as exhibition galleries. Admission during this season is $12.50 for adults and free for children under 18.
Paved, board, or hard-surface paths wind through most of the tour area. Some of the buildings, however, such as the Brick Dwelling, are not accessible to people in wheelchairs or those who have difficulty negotiating stairs.
U.S. 20 is a wide, two-lane road that meanders through hills and countryside between Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Albany, New York. Driving directions are available on the village’s Web site. Special parking for motorhomes is available at the village, and typically the parking lot is less crowded during the week than on weekends or holidays.
For additional information, contact:
Hancock Shaker Village
P.O. Box 927
Pittsfield, MA 01202
This is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, located online and in the January and June issues of FMC magazine.
Bonnie Brae Cabins & Campsites
108 Broadway St.
Pittsfield, MA 01201-1603
Hidden Valley Campground
15 Scott Road
Lanesboro, MA 01237-0700
P.O. Box 668
Charlemont, MA 01339
Shady Pines Campground
547 Loop Road
Savoy, MA 01256
Candlelit Shaker Suppers
Sister Clymena’s chicken pie; pot roast of beef cooked with cranberries; potatoes with rosemary; Sister Mary’s zesty carrots; tomato basil soup; and ginger cake are among the Shaker specialties served at Hancock Shaker Village’s Shaker Suppers. The suppers are preceded by an optional guided tour; the final supper for 2004 will be offered on December 26.
The tour begins at 4:00 p.m., offering visitors the opportunity to learn about Shaker daily life and view much of the village’s premier collection of Shaker artifacts. At 5:30 p.m., hosts costumed in period attire greet guests and serve refreshments and specialty ciders in the historic kitchen of the 1830 Brick Dwelling.
Following the singing of a Shaker grace, dinner is served in the Believers’ Dining Room, where the Hancock Shakers took their repast. Caterer Paul Proudy, who was recognized by Yankee Magazine in 2002 and 2003, uses recipes from The Best of Shaker Cooking by Amy Bess Miller, founding president of Hancock Shaker Village.
The candlelight meal begins with a hearty soup, served with bread and a fresh garden salad. The entree and accompaniment selections vary each week, making use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Dinner is served buffet-style to allow guests to savor an assortment of Shaker flavors. A typical menu may include Sister Clymena’s chicken pie, ham baked in cider, and pot roast of beef; herbed rice and roasted potatoes; Sister Mary’s zesty carrots; and green beans with dill. Dessert features Shaker ginger cake, chocolate pound cake, and apple crisp served with tea and coffee.
Reservations for Shaker Suppers are required and may be made by phoning (800) 817-1137 Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., or weekends at the Hancock Shaker Village ticket desk.
Reservations can be made online by visiting www.hancockshakervillage.org. The cost of the evening is $50 per person for dinner only or $55 for dinner, an evening tour, and village admission. Children’s price (under 18) is $25; children under 6 are free.