Hancock Shaker Village: Plain and Simple
By Richard Bauman
The Shakers are remembered mostly for their extraordinary handcrafted furniture, but they were so much more than just furniture. A visit to Hancock Shaker Village, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, opens doors to better understanding of the Shakers’ way of living.
In all, the Shakers established 18 communities in New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts. Hancock Shaker Village was the third Shaker community founded in America. It was originally called “The City of Peace,” when established in 1787.
Hancock Shaker Village encompasses more than one thousand acres. But of primary interest to most visitors are the more than twenty preserved and restored buildings and gardens contained within about five acres adjacent to the visitors’ center.
Each building at Hancock has its own special history, but three buildings can give visitors excellent insight into the Shakers and Shaker living.
The Brick Dwelling
The five-story red brick, white trimmed residence hall known as the Brick Dwelling, belies the notion that Shakers lived in hermit-like discomfort. To the contrary, the building’s rich wood banisters, highly polished floors, softly colored walls, and overall spotlessness accurately reflect living conditions there.
The building was designed by one of the Shaker brothers, and many of them shared in its construction in 1830.
Each room in the Brick Dwelling is a still life in Shaker living. For example, the Sisters and Brothers retiring rooms have minimal furnishings and a few personal articles needed to live a simple, orderly life. Whether a retiring room was for men or women, typically there was a single rocking chair in it.
In addition to individual beds, there was a table, chairs and one or two candle stands — and that was about it. The rooms were used only for sleeping and for reading religious materials before and after meals.
Cleanliness was definitely next to Godliness in Shaker communities. Ann Lee, the sect’s founder declared: “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in Heaven.” Brothers and Sisters were expected to keep their rooms tidy and spotless.
Shakers were first-class organizers, and maintained clutter-free surroundings. The wooden pegs visitors see installed high on the walls in most rooms were used to hang clothes on as well as chairs and other small objects.
The Round Stone Barn
Without question, the most photographed building at the Hancock community is the Round Stone Barn. It is three stories tall with a circumference of 270 feet. It was designed for maximum efficiently in feeding the cows, milking them, and cleaning up the building’s 52 stales.
Wagons entered the third floor and deposited hay in the haymow at the center of the barn from which the cows ate. There were trap doors in the floor of the stalls so manure could be removed through them and into the basement where it could be loaded into wagons and used as fertilizer.
The barn originally had a cone shaped roof, but after a fire in 1864, when it was rebuilt, the roof was changed to its current configuration.
Selling to “The World”
The Laundry/Machine Shop building, built in 1790, is the oldest existing building at Hancock. Visitors can glimpse how some of the Shaker men and women worked in the service of their brothers and sisters — and how they created some of the products they sold to “the world.”
The machine shop occupies one half of the building and has working examples of lathes and other tools used in the making of furniture, broom handles and other wooden and metal implements. The lathes, saws and other “power tools” were connected by shafts and drive belts to a water turbine, which was the source of their power.
The other half of the building was the community’s laundry facilities. Laundry was washed in wash machines on the first floor, and then a lift was used to move the damp laundry to upper floors where it was hanged inside the building to dry. When the laundry was dry, it was dropped through a chute into baskets on the first floor for ironing, folding or hanging.
You can view workshops that were used for weaving and basket making as well as those shops where furniture was built. There are examples of all these items, and especially Shaker brooms, including broom-making equipment, which is still used today. The Shakers invented the flat broom, which is common in most homes.
The Shakers had an enviable reputation for high quality plant seeds, which were one of their most renowned products. They packaged and sold seeds mail order throughout the country.
Shakers herbs, for medicinal purposes, were also highly sought because of their consistent and outstanding quality. At one time no less than 10 acres of land were devoted to growing herbs. Today, only a few hundred square feet are used to demonstrate some of the herbs the Shakers grew.
The Shakers, as a whole, were inventive people. They invented the circular saw, an improved washing machine, condensed milk, the flat broom, the common clothes pin, the one-horse wagon, metal pins, a side-hill plow, pea-sheller, silk-reeling equipment, a revolving oven, an improved wood-burning stove, bed rollers and a machine for threshing and fertilizing — to name just some items. Examples of many of these items can be seen throughout the Village.
For the infirm, Shakers created wheel chairs — typically rocking chairs fitted with large wooden wheels. They had “walking frames,” which are akin to walkers used today, except made from wood.
The Shaker rarely patented their inventions, and their ideas were often “re-invented” by others, who claimed credit for them. One exception was the Shaker washing machine. Refined over several decades, the Improved Washing Machine was patented in 1877. It looked like a long, enclosed sink counter with large compartments for washing and rinsing clothes. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was labor saving.
There are several examples of Shaker wash machines in the laundry area at the Village.
Plain and Simple
Without question, the Shakers are best known for their fine, lasting furniture devoid of fancy designs, and frills. Genuine Shaker chairs, tables and cabinets often sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
The Shakers saw no justifiable reason to have varying levels in quality of workmanship in the things they made. “Let it be plain and simple,” was the Shaker canon, “(and) of good and substantial quality, unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability.”
All work, and products, had to be equally well done — and most often were.
The City of Peace, at its peak in the 1830s, had about 300 residents. While their way of life can be summed up as “plain and simple,” their way of life wasn’t austere. They lived in comfortable surroundings and for the most part were self-sufficient. They didn’t live in the world, but they used its conveniences when it suited them, including even automobiles in the early 20th century.
Hancock Shaker Village is a fine representation of a Shaker community’s way of life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When you’re in either eastern Massachusetts or the Albany area of New York, it’s well worth a visit.
Hancock Shaker Village is about five miles west of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and about 20 miles east of Albany, New York, on Route 20.
For information about operating hours and special programs, you can contact Hancock Shaker Village by phone at 800-817-1137; FAX: 413-447-9357, or visit their Website: hancockshakervillage.org.
Richard Bauman is a freelance writer, author, and writing consultant. His articles have appeared in more than 300 different publications, worldwide. He writes about spirituality, travel, history, self-improvement and general interest topics. He resides in West Covina, California, with his wife, Donna. They have two grown children, Christopher and Stephanie, and four energetic grandsons.
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