Shaker villages were organized by village elders into self-sufficient families of 30 to 100 sisters and brethren. Each family would be responsible for a diverse set of tasks, such as farming, woodworking, dairy, or construction, which they would barter with amongst themselves and surrounding communities. They embraced both capitalism and technology wholeheartedly, using first water-driven and later steam-driven tools as they established a number of successful industries. These included a seed business, an herb and pharmaceutical business, a baked bean delivery service, and, of course, those famous chairs.
The community established in 1787 at Mount Lebanon in Columbia County would become the epicenter of the Shaker religion; there, the Central Ministry presided over the religion's general expansion. (At the of pinnacle of its success, there were 19 Shaker communities from Maine to Kentucky, numbering over 6,000 adherents.) Mount Lebanon, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, was a sprawling, 6,000-acre, 100-building village organized into eight communal families. But even as their religion became synonymous with the many crafts that they perfected, especially their simple but exquisitely crafted furniture and boxes, their membership went into a steep decline by the beginning of the 20th century. The last Shakers left the North Family site at Mount Lebanon in 1947. Today, there are five elderly Shakers that live on Sabbathday Lake in Maine. The majority of the Mount Lebanon site in its stunning Berkshire setting is currently occupied by the Darrow School, a private boarding high school that leases the buildings in return for the stewardship of them. It is here that the ruins of the Great Stone Barn - once the largest in the United States, before it burned in a catastrophic fire in 1972 - sit in decay, as its remaining four walls are propped up by huge stabilizing beams added in 1984.
What Ann Lee probably didn't realize when she started her religion is that it would result in a cottage industry (there is a Shaker Historical Trail) that supports the thousands of people who are preserving the many buildings and artifacts from this fascinating chapter in American history and reproducing many of the Shaker crafts and products. Jerry Grant is the Librarian and Historian at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York. A tall man with thick graying hair and a bushy beard, he has been involved with the Shaker experience as both a craftsman and a curator since 1976. He showed me around the many barns on the property of museum founder John S. Williams that house the 38,000-piece collection of objects, artifacts, manuscripts, and tools. He also gave me a very thorough lesson about Shaker reality. Commenting on the reasons for the decline of the Shakers, Grant said, "It's a demanding life, I think way beyond celibacy, which is probably not a minor issue, but not the major one either. I think that giving up all your individual rights to a communal group and to someone else's authority is not something that is easy to do."
In 2001, the Shaker Museum and Library received a Save America's Treasures grant to investigate the potential of preserving the rapidly eroding barn in New Lebanon to eventually house its collection. The Great Stone Barn was originally constructed in 1859 to consolidate the North family's dairy industry that had previously been housed in 14 separate buildings. The goal of the Mount Lebanon North Family Site Project is to restore the Great Stone Barn and turn it into a 50,000-square-foot modern museum. In addition to the barn, the Shaker Museum and Library recently purchased nine other North Family buildings, including the second Shaker Meetinghouse, which is one of the most historically architecturally significant buildings in New York. It will be a homecoming of sorts, considering that about 80 percent of the objects in the museum's collection are believed to have been crafted or used at the Mount Lebanon site.
Grant pointed out some areas of disrepair around the current site in Old Chatham and said, "As much work that we do to keep it clean and in repair, we've got some buildings that are very clearly in deteriorating conditions. I think that over fifty years the Shaker Museum has just worn the buildings out." He paused before continuing. "Our mission is more on a national level than a local historical one, and we are in the process of building a national constituent of support for the Mount Lebanon project."
If you want to make a donation or learn more, you can visit the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York, Wednesday through Monday, 10am-5pm. (518) 794-9100. There are some buildings at the North Family New Lebanon site currently open on weekends from 10am-5pm, as well. For more info on the WMF, visit www.wmf.org.