Why are we still so interested in a religion and a way of life that has only three practitioners left in the United States? I think the complexities of our lives these days makes us yearn for a time when life was simpler. Not only was it simpler, but in some ways it was more real. At the end of the workday, you could look back at the Shaker boxes, brooms, furniture, laundry, preserves, etc. that you had made during the day with a sense of satisfaction that you had spent your time that day doing something of use. Many of us with office jobs today wonder if we are of any real use to anyone.
Whatever your motivation, you will enjoy visiting the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. Unlike Sabbathday Lake, there are no Shakers left here. But the guides are interesting and well informed. During our day at Hancock, we watched the introductory movie at the visitor’s center, went over to the brick dormitory to hear about the daily life of the Shakers, got to pick up chicks, showed up for a demonstration of the water turbine in the “factory” shop, got to help make a “double” rolling pin, and participated in a Shaker music program. In addition, we had a nice lunch at the Village Harvest Café.
The village is a great place to bring kids. They have stocked the barns with baby animals that kids can pet. They have gardens so city kids can learn how vegetables are grown. There’s also a barn for kids with Shaker costumes they can try on, a large plastic cow to milk, and other things that appeal to children.
Here is the iconic round barn at the village:
Here is an interpreter using the “double” rolling pin that made rolling out a crust faster. It was a critical item in a kitchen that fed 100 people three times a day. Behind the interpreter, and to the right, you see a cupboard that is really a dumbwaiter used to transport all that food up to the dining room directly above the kitchen.
Learning to make a “double” rolling pin.
As Shakers were celibate, women and men lived in a building that was divided in half, with women on one side and men on the other. There was no mixing at worship or dinner, which was eaten in silence. Even work was segregated by sex. Also, casual gossip was discouraged to promote harmony. At the height of their numbers, people were house five to a pretty stark room.
We wondered why people were drawn to living in such close quarters, and then came upon this account of Hannah Cohoon, the woman who designed the Shaker “Tree of Life”. It turns out that the Shaker village was a refuge for women with children whose husbands had deserted them. Shakers continually rotated jobs, so people became skilled in many types of work. This proved to be a downfall for the Shakers after the Civil War, when the manpower shortage in the country drew a lot of the male Shakers out of the Shaker villages. The religion never recovered.
Tickets to the village cost $18. Here’s the link to the Village’s web site: http://hancockshakervillage.org/