(If you have not read “Part 1,” and want to, please just scroll back to the post immediately prior to this one.)
We left off on the last post with my husband, Bill, and I out in Western Massachusetts having been to a Blondie concert, MassMoCA and the Museum of Dog. I’ve saved the historical sites for this part of the story.
As many of you know, I have been involved at some level with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community for quite a few years. I have volunteered on work days, taught rug hooking, and demonstrated the craft for Open Farm Day and Harvest Festival there. I have unabashedly fallen in love with the place, so aptly known as “Chosen Land” to the Shakers, and with the people there. Along with a truly dedicated staff and team of volunteers, for whom the work is clearly deeply meaningful, there are the living Shakers themselves, Brother Arnold and Sister June. For them, Sabbathday Lake is home, and because of them, it is a sacred place that can not be, and I do not believe will ever be, considered wholly a museum.
In spite of my involvement with Sabbathday Lake and my interest in Shaker history, I had never been to any of the Shaker museums that are just a day’s drive or less from home. It was at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, in Adams, that the very kind and capable staff recommended a visit to the Hancock Shaker Village, only about thirty minutes from there. But first, let’s talk about the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum.
The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum is extremely well done in every possible way. I would highly recommend you click on the link and thoroughly explore their website and then make plans to visit. Upon entering the gift shop, where you must purchase your tickets before going in to the homestead, you will be greeted by knowledgeable and friendly staff members who have a clear enthusiasm for the museum and its history. You will have the choice of having a docent give you a guided tour, using an electronic audio/visual tour device, or simply going through the home in a self guided way, reading the plentiful and detailed exhibit descriptions in every room. My husband chose the A/V tour and I chose to just walk through the museum on my own.
This museum is so professionally and engagingly arranged and annotated that I was taking mental notes on how this example might inform decisions for our own historical society back home. Every aspect of Susan B. Anthony’s remarkable life is covered, from her family of origin, to her early life and career as a teacher, to her work in the temperance, abolitionist, and of course, women’s’ suffrage movement. All of this history and context comes very much alive with the extraordinary collection of artifacts, documents, and ephemera belonging to her and/or her life story. I think my favorite artifact in the museum (a photo is in the slide show below) is the plaster cast made of her clasping hands with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I felt goosebumps as I looked at this incredible object. And, being a fiber/textile geek, I was also very interested in the completely hand-quilted replica of a quilt that Susan had made as a young person. Additionally, there are antique woven coverlets, linens, dresses, and the tools of carding and spinning in the home. It is beyond the scope of this post to tell the entire story, but again, the museum website is extremely thorough, much like the museum, so click on over to that for so much more information, including on the restoration of the home itself.
Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, fourteen years before women were finally given the vote in the United States. It is unfortunate that she did not live to see the final fulfillment of that dream, but she left behind millions of grateful women, including those of us who were not yet born. My grandmother was three years old in 1906 and seventeen years old before women had the vote. I have thought about that often, that my own grandmother was born in a time when she might never have expected to vote. It means that we have not had this privilege in America for very long. Let us never fail to exercise it.
Susan B. Anthony may have been certain that eventually her work would win the day, even if she wouldn’t live to see it. She is quoted as saying, “Failure is impossible.” The gift shop at her birthplace has silver toned bracelets with these words in them, and I couldn’t leave without one.
Here are the photos I took, with permission, which do not begin to do justice to the museum.
We took the staff at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum at their word and went, the next day, Sunday, to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Here are excerpts of the introduction on their website:
“Hancock Shaker Village began in the late 1780s, when nearly 100 Believers consolidated a community on land donated by local farmers who had converted to the Shaker movement. By the 1830s, with a great many more conversions and additional land acquisitions, the Shaker community peaked in population with more than 300 Believers and more than 3,000 acres……Eventually, forces outside the community, including the industrial revolution and the shifting of America from a rural to an urban society, worked against their continued growth and stability. By the early 1900s, with dwindling converts, the Shaker population at Hancock declined to about 50 Believers, most of them Sisters and orphan girls who had been adopted by the community, and only a few adult Brethren……Many outlying acres of land were sold off, and buildings were razed during the final decades of the Hancock community. In 1959, when the Shakers could no longer maintain their City of Peace, they sold the remaining property to a local group committed to preserving the Shaker heritage. The utopian village known as Hancock Shaker Village continues its life today as a history museum with 20 authentic buildings, a working farm and significant collections of Shaker furniture and artifacts.”
I have to objectively say that this is an absolutely lovely and beautifully curated museum village of over twenty historic buildings and thousands of Shaker artifacts, not to mention the extensive gardens, extremely knowledgeable and personable docents, and an onsite visitors’ and educational center. It is also a breathtaking venue for weddings and events. I say “objectively” because I have to remove the part of myself that compares it to Sabbathday Lake. This is not a fair comparison and should not be made. Sabbathday Lake is literally the only Shaker location on Earth that is an active Shaker community with a working farm, shops, gardens, and livestock that are not strictly for educational purposes, but are actually the continuing business in support of the living Shakers who have been conducting their spiritual and working lives there since 1783. Sabbathday Lake is the only place on Earth where you can attend an actual Shaker worship service. No Shaker museum in the country should be compared to this, because their missions are different. The other museums are doing critically important work in preserving and honoring the memory of the Shakers who no longer inhabit those locations and educating the public about Shaker life.
Having said that (and then I’ll leave this point alone, I promise), that part-of-me-that-was-comparing-and-should-not-have-been felt a profound sadness at Hancock. I left there, after having a truly wonderful visit, more committed than ever to my volunteer work at Sabbathday Lake with a renewed sense of just how precious that community is, how rare, how indescribably valuable, and how humbled I am by my luck to have it right here in my own backyard in Maine.
OK, onward. Hancock Shaker Village is a must see on your trip through the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts. It is possible to spend an entire day, maybe more, there going through each building, taking advantage of the tours and demonstrations that are offered, having a bite to eat in a remarkable fresh food cafe on site, and shopping the gift shop (where, incidentally, they sell products still made at Sabbathday Lake, as does the Mount Lebanon historic site which we will talk about in a bit). It was so much fun to do the right kind of comparing when we saw the Hancock dwelling house, the laundry room, the dining area, the meeting house and seeing how they were similar and yet different to these same spaces at Sabbathday Lake. Bill teaches soap making in the laundry room at Sabbathday Lake and was having a great time in its companion space at Hancock.
Across the street from the main village there is a path back to the reservoir and also leading to the Shaker cemetery, which characteristically has just a single stone representing all who are buried there. The gate was open to the actual burying ground, but out of reverence we remained outside the gate. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit and to remember the bustling Christian community that once existed there.
Here are a few pictures of Hancock Shaker Village, including pics of its iconic stone round barn. As before, I took a lot of fiber/textile related photographs. Notice also the beautiful lunch I had in the cafe there.
Finally, before heading for home, we went over the state line in to Mount Lebanon, New York to visit the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site. Unfortunately, I did not take many pictures there, and, in any case, I would encourage you to also explore their website. Here is an excerpt from the history on the website:
“The Shakers at Mount Lebanon led the largest and most successful utopian communal society in America for 160 years, from 1787 to 1947.
From this central community developed the Shakers’ ideals of equality of labor, gender, and race, as well as communal property, freedom, and pacifism. From Mount Lebanon also grew the now famous Shaker aesthetic of simplicity, expressed in their objects, furniture, buildings, and village planning.
With over 6,000 acres and 100 buildings, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was a driving force in the agricultural, industrial, commercial, and institutional activities of its day. The Village was divided into smaller “Family” groups (Church, Second, Center, North, East, South, and so on.), each with its own leadership, members, and commercial activities. As the Shaker community declined in population in the early 20th century, the site was gradually sold to various private owners, including the Darrow School, which still inhabits Mount Lebanon’s Church and Center Families, and the Abode of the Message which inhabits the South Family’s buildings.
Mount Lebanon was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and was recognized by the World Monuments Fund in both 2004 and 2006 as one of the 100 most significant endangered historic sites in the world.
The North Family today houses the museum and consists of 11 buildings on 91 acres. The iconic North Family Great Stone Barn – measuring 50’ wide, four stories high, and nearly 200’ long, was a testament to the ingenuity, faith, and perseverance of the Shakers. In September 1972 the barn was totally gutted by a catastrophic fire, leaving only its four massive masonry walls standing.”
I will say that those four masonry walls, still standing, are jaw dropping. There is an effort underway to restore that structure.
We were met in the visitors’ building by a friendly docent who again had great depth of knowledge about the history there. We did not have much time to explore the site because it was already mid afternoon and we had a five hour drive ahead of us to get home. I would very much like to go back there to walk the grounds. It’s important to note that much of what was the village is now occupied by a private school, so this site is not as intact as Hancock appears to be. Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile destination. I was struck by this sign when you walk in to the visitors’ center/gift shop.
This sign affirms what many don’t realize, that the Shakers were not shut out from the world, but rather traveling widely to conduct their business. Nor did they spurn technology. In fact, the Shakers were extremely inventive and created new ways of making their work more efficient. Hancock Shaker Village’s website addresses the truths and legends regarding Shaker inventiveness:
“What did the Shakers invent?
The Shakers were inventive people, embracing and often improving upon technology. There are many myths about Shaker inventions. Some are exaggerated truths; others are fiction. Because the Shakers, as a show of humility, often did not patent their inventions and improvements, it is difficult to say how many things they invented.Current scholarship indicates that the Shakers most likely invented the flat broom. They were one of the first to put garden seeds in printed paper packets for sale. They may have invented an early (but perhaps not the first) version of a circular saw. Authentication of many other Shaker inventions or improvements on existing technologies and items is debated and discussed to this day.”
The most observant among you may be asking, “So what about the other bracelet from Part 1? Where did that come from?”
On Sunday morning, before we left Adams, we went to a funky little cafe on its main street called the Coffee Liberation Front. I had a delicious fresh quiche for breakfast with equally great coffee. Bill had a rainbow striped “unicorn bagel.”
It turned out that one of the owners makes imaginative beaded jewelry, much of it with nods to different meanings and energies. Whether you believe in New Age concepts or not, her work is lovely. I chose a bracelet with “air” charms on it – a hummingbird, wings, feathers, a butterfly -things related to flight. I think I was drawn to it because, in both my life and my work, I am seeking as much freedom as I can create for myself. It, along with the “Failure is impossible” bracelet from the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum are happy reminders of both an enjoyable weekend away and my desired life direction.
I hope you have enjoyed these two posts highlighting our weekend away and hope even more you will visit some of the places I’ve described. If you have traveled to any of these places as well, I’d love to hear your impressions about them in the comments. If you have interest in Shaker life, I would very much encourage you to visit the Sabbathday Lake community in New Gloucester, Maine, just about half an hour south of the Parris House. There is truly inspiration everywhere.