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Driving New England Shaker Settlements

What remains open to the public are a few of the North Family buildings, including the Brethren's Workshop, the Wash House, and a small Dwelling House. I see an exhibition, created by local schoolchildren, on the Shakers who made Mount Lebanon famous for its cloaks, seeds, and furniture. But the place feels lonely and forgotten.

That is about to change. Twenty minutes south-west, toward the rolling farm country of Old Chatham, New York, the Shaker Museum & Library beckons. Housed in several beautifully laid out barns, converted into a museum space in 1950, is the world's premier collection of Shaker artifacts and archives, though the site itself had nothing to do with the Shakers. Eighty percent of collector John S. Williams Sr.'s machinery, tools, textiles, furnishings, oval boxes, and manuscripts originally came from Mount Lebanon. With Mount Lebanon listed by the World Monuments Fund in 2003 as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world, the Shaker Museum's board recently voted to acquire the North Family buildings—including the massive stone ruins of the five-story Dairy Barn—and move the Williams collection back to the village from whence it came. When the mammoth project—which includes reconstructing the barn and turning it into a museum—is finished, at least a portion of Mount Lebanon will have been restored to its former glory and another rich Shaker site created.

As a child who swam and fished in Shaker mill ponds by day and slept in a room rimmed with Shaker pegs by night, I had heard many rumors and half-truths about the sect. Local farmers, suspicious of the Shakers and their strange ways, used to call the ceremonial site in the woods above the Tyringham settlement the Devil's Playground. Bizarre rites, drunkenness, and debauchery were said to have taken place up there. Rounding out the intriguing tales, there was the rumor that on a freezing January night in 1858, 23 children averaging 14 years of age ran away from the Tyringham Shakers, never to be seen or heard from again. With equally chilling stories awaiting me farther north, I persuade my husband to join me for the New Hampshire leg of my tour.

From the Berkshires, a three-hour drive up Interstate 91 through Massachusetts college towns and past crunchy Vermont food co-ops deposits us at Mascoma Lake, just a half-mile or so from the doors of the Shaker Inn in Enfield, New Hampshire. It is past midnight, but even by moonlight the enormous structure—known to the Shakers as the Great Stone Dwelling—is impressive. Designed by a well-known Boston architect named Ammi Burnham Young and built between 1837 and 1841 out of locally quarried granite, the six-story building measures 62 feet from ground to bell tower. It is the largest dwelling the Shakers ever built, with room enough to house 150 Believers. Inside, there is scarcely a nail to be found, though 800 drawers, 500 built-in cupboards, 182 windows, 200 feet of black-cherry banister, and a complicated system of flues to vent smoke from lamps and odors from chamber-pot cupboards were fashioned by hand to outfit the interior.

We push open the front door and find…no one. The innkeeper has gone to bed, and we walk the wide, empty halls, trying to pick one of the 20-foot-square sleeping chambers. All of the doors are open. We are, it seems, the only guests. I remember from my reading that one of the rooms is said to be haunted by the ghosts of indentured children who wanted to leave the Shakers but couldn't. After coffee the next morning, Janet, the innkeeper, leads a private tour with her spaniel Mojo in tow. She regales us with tales of eerie sightings, like that of a tall, spectral figure dressed in a long cloak who was apparently standing at the top of the stairs when two guests bumped into him on their way out to dinner. The patrons were regulars; she is sure the story is true. After all, in 1863, outside the doors of this very building, a deranged veteran of the Civil War who'd been denied the right to reclaim his children had murdered Caleb Dyer, beloved Trustee of Enfield and himself the son of a woman who spent her life trying to extract her children from the firm grip of Shaker indenture. She adds that Mojo often barks at windows and doors, making a fuss for no reason, and on quiet, slow nights during the week, Janet herself has sensed that she was in spiritual company. Taking her daughter through the attic workrooms one day, she opened several built-in drawers in one of the rooms to demonstrate the quality of Shaker millwork. They were alone in the huge stone building and yet, minutes later, on their way past the room to go back downstairs, the two women found all of the drawers slammed shut. Convinces me. (The property is now closed, taken over by the nearby Enfield Shaker Museum. Beginning in April, visitors can tour the Great Stone Dwelling, but it will no longer function as an inn.)

I consider myself a skeptic by nature, but I feel the presence of "others" around me the whole time I'm here, and when I try to talk my husband into sneaking up to the attic at midnight so that we can catch a glimpse of a Shaker ghost-child, he blanches and plunges his nose resolutely into his bedtime reading.

Earlier in the day, however, he consented to driving 45 minutes on back roads to Canterbury. We passed chunks of New Hampshire granite set into fields and forests like enormous tombstones. Turning a corner in the road, our eyes were drawn to a long green hillside capped by a series of white clapboard houses ashimmer in the sunlight.

Canterbury was a prominent Shaker village for 200 years and stands as a remarkable—and picturesque—example of how Shaker life evolved over time. The last Shaker resident, Sister Ethel Hudson, died in 1992. Peering into her modest quarters—at her card table, her television set, the small stuffed animal on her bureau holding a sign that reads, YOU LITTLE DEVIL!—one grasps that she, unlike the participants in the time-frozen costume drama that unfolds daily at Hancock, was a real person. She baked and prayed and remembered the night Canterbury was first illuminated by electric light, but she also had a sharp, mischievous sense of humor and was addicted to One Life to Live. Go, Ethel. It is the continuing strength of her presence here that makes me feel, for the first time ever, a real human connection to Shaker life.

From the surprising vulgarity of early Shaker paint colors (orange, red, and yellow in the sleeping rooms!) to the famous Shaker-style Ivy League letter sweaters produced for decades by the Sisters at Canterbury, the site inspires one to think of the Shakers as people, not weird religious dinosaurs or theme-park mascots. In this austere Canterbury compound, a group long celebrated in books, articles, and Ken Burns documentaries for its discipline, ingenuity, piousness, and innate (if unintentional) sense of design finally comes alive, ghosts and all.

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