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Driving New England Shaker Settlements

On a crisp New England day—when it seems that every tumble of stone wall and abandoned barn is one giant regional cliché—I slow my car to look at the former Shaker settlement where my family's house once stood. Before being transplanted a mile or so down the road in the 1920's, the large clapboard structure had been the Meetinghouse for the Tyringham, Massachusetts, community of Shakers. I have spent every summer of my life in that house, yet despite this pedigree, I had only casual knowledge of the sect itself, the lazy sort of knowledge one tends to have when surrounded by the real thing. I vaguely knew the Shaker basics—that they believed in celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. And, of course, that they shook. Now, headed west along the Mass Pike toward Hancock Shaker Village, the Shaker Museum & Library in Old Chatham, and what is left of the buildings that once made up Mount Lebanon, I am finally on a mission to learn more.

In the early 1970's, while other children visited Rye Playland or Palisades Amusement Park on hot summer days, my brother, cousins, and I were driven over to Hancock, Massachusetts to watch grown men and women in humble costumes card flax and perform wondrous feats with a lathe. The preserved village was a kind of WASP Disneyland then, with hayrides instead of roller coasters, earnest ersatz Shakers instead of giant squeaky-voiced mice, and a Round Stone Barn in place of the Magic Kingdom's castle. As an eight-year-old, I wasn't always thrilled by the thought of an afternoon spent traipsing from herb cottage to icehouse, but as a middle-aged mother gone AWOL, I find it a treat to explore what has since become one of the Berkshires' biggest destinations.

Hancock's barnlike Center for Shaker Studies, founded in 2000, includes the entrance, orientation areas, research library, gallery space, adjoining café, and gift shop. The houses of the actual village look like toys laid out on a verdant blanket of lawns, pastures, and medicinal-herb gardens. Of the 56 original buildings that once stood on the 1,200-acre site, 20 are left. But from the large Brick Dwelling House to the Laundry & Machine Shop, these relics of a vastly different time and way of life have been beautifully restored.

It is the purity of Shaker ingenuity that really makes an impression. In the brown clapboard Tan House, a windlass operated by a complicated system of pulleys raised heavy loads of animal hides from floor to floor. Water rerouted from a nearby stream powered a turbine that turned a large grinding stone used for sharpening farm implements and woodworking tools. The famous Round Stone Barn was designed so that wagons could enter on the upper level and pitch their loads into the central haymow; cattle stalls were one level down, with feed openings facing the haymow. Clearly, time and energy that might otherwise have been spent in pursuit of sex were channeled into more practical and edifying pastimes.

The quality of their products combined with the uniquely strange nature of Shaker worship services—the Shakers of the 1700's shook, jerked, and spoke in tongues, while those who came later performed ritualized dances and sang songs—have attracted tourists since the early 19th century. Among others, Leo Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Herman Melville, and Charles Dickens were all keenly interested in the sect. Before he decided the group's practices were "hateful and disgusting," Hawthorne may have even considered joining; Dickens (who spent a single day with the Shakers) declared them "among the Enemies of Heaven and Earth." Ever the sybarite, he described Mount Lebanon—once the largest and most active Shaker village in the country—as a "gloomy, silent commonwealth." For very different reasons, as I drive through the hilly forests on Route 20 and pull into the settlement's empty parking lot, I'm inclined to agree. The trip to New Lebanon takes a mere 15 minutes. How long, I wonder, had it taken a minister from Hancock to struggle over rutted roads to receive the latest word from on high?

At the height of their membership, in the mid 1800's, the Shakers numbered just under 6,000 across 18 prosperous settlements from Maine to Kentucky. It is therefore all the more poignant that Mount Lebanon, the central Shaker ministry for 160 years, is such a haunted shadow of its former self. Most of the buildings that made up the eight communal Families and housed more than 600 Believers are gone, many of them torn down or sold off as private residences or school buildings. Though one can still enter and see the basic bones of the place, the famously large vaulted Meetinghouse is now a high school library. A Sufi community—tie-dyed T-shirts and bushy facial hair as far as the eye can see—occupies the structures that once made up the South Family.


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