Monday, January 23, 2017

Walking With The Shakers

As a person who is of a "certain age" I tend to read the obituaries looking for people who have not lasted as long as I have.  It's not a morbid fascination.  I am not concerned about dying.  I am just interested in how they died, so I can be more careful that the same thing doesn't happen to me.

Just recently I noticed a particular obit in the NYT which caught my attention.  The headline was: "Sister Frances Ann Carr, 89, One of Last Three Shakers."  She had joined the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, in New Glouchester, Maine, in 1937. Her death leaves two surviving Shakers, Brother Arnold Hadd, 60, ad Sister June Carpenter, 78.  Literally the end of an era.

I have had a long and personal relationship with Shakers, Shaker communities, furniture and their beliefs for most of my adult life.  I first discovered their existence by reading antiques books in the 1960's and was intrigued by the perfect simplicity of their designs.  When I created my first television series in 1973, "Welcome to the Past, the History of Antiques," I devoted an entire half hour show to the Shakers.  To gather information for this show I travelled East to visit many of the existing Shaker communities.  I consider Shaker furniture to be perhaps the only authentic American style of furniture, with designs transmitted by angels from heaven, not emigrants from other countries.

The term "Shaker Furniture" is not well understood and there are many examples of simple furniture  identified or sold as "Shaker" which is not accurate.  True Shaker furniture is extremely rare, as it was made by them for their use in their communities, which at their peak during the Civil War, reached a limit of 6,000 members.  They preferred to be separate from the outside world, and kept these furnishings to themselves, with one exception.  Robert Wagon, a Shaker in New York in the 1870's, operated a rocking chair company at Mt. Lebanon where he sold a range of sizes of rocking chairs, with woven tape seats.  These were the only items of Shaker furniture sold outside the communities, until nearly a century later when Dr. Edward Deming Andrews and his wife, Faith, were invited to see objects in the private rooms at Hancock.

The story of how the Andrews "discovered" the Shakers is wonderful, and I encourage you to research it yourself.  I only point out here that it was their first book that I discovered in the library so many years ago that made me aware of this wonderful sect.

In any event, I spent a lot of time and gas driving around to visit as many old Shaker communities as I could back in the early 1970's.  It is during one of these trips I found myself in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts arriving in Pittsfield.  I knew the community of Hancock was just outside town and, since it was late in the day, I stopped in the local YMCA to clean up.  I remember standing in the showers, enjoying the hot water after a long day on the road.  As I was getting dressed one of the men in the locker room asked me where I was from.  I told him I was traveling around visiting historic sites and intended to go to Hancock.

"Well, then," he replied, "I think you should meet Faith. I am the town postman and I know everyone in this place.  She is on my route and I know she enjoys meeting students of the arts."

We walked up into the lobby and he got on the telephone.  When she answered, he said "I have someone who wants to meet you."  Then he handed me the phone.

I couldn't believe it.  She immediately told me "Go to Hancock first, then come see me."

It was off season and the weather was brilliant for that time of year.  I had the village of Hancock completely to myself.  It had just finished raining and the sun was shining through the clouds, pouring through the open windows of the buildings.  I was alone with the ghosts of the Shakers.  There were no other visitors.  After a few hours I felt a strange connection to the place.  It was like I had lived there my whole life. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place.

The next day I visited Faith Andrews and we talked for hours.  She invited me back the next time I was in the area and over the next few years I visited her many times, often staying in her spare bedroom.  She was an amazing and distinguished woman, who took the time to educate me on many aspects of the Shaker philosophy which remain with me today.  My wife, Kristen, made a stained glass window of the Tree of Life and I made a simple cherry frame.  We presented it to her during one visit and she returned the gesture, giving me some personal Shaker items, which I may discuss in another post.

I do not intend to go more deeply into the history of the Shakers here, as you can do that for yourself. The point of this story relates to the recent passing of Sister Frances Ann.

On one of these visits with Faith she confided in me that there was something I could do to resolve a controversy among the surviving Shakers.  It involved the remaining dozen or so Sisters who were rather evenly divided between Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake.

Here is the entry on this topic in Wikipedia:

In 1957, after "months of prayer", Eldresses Gertrude, Emma, and Ida, the leaders of the United Society of Believers and who were based out of Canterbury, voted to close the Shaker Covenant, the document which all new members need to sign to become members of the Shakers.[27] In 1988, speaking about the three men and women in their 20s and 30s who had joined the Shakers and were living in the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Eldress Bertha Lindsay stated, "To become a Shaker you have to sign a legal document taking the necessary vows and that document, the official covenant, is locked up in our safe. Membership is closed forever."[27]

This was about 1978 when Faith asked me to run this errand.  Since to adopt any member of the public into the Shaker faith it was required that a small group of both Brothers and Sisters approve the applicant, when the last Brother passed away (1957) the remaining Sisters voted that no new members would be accepted.  That meant the end of the faith.  The end of the Shakers.

It is important to mention that the Shakers held in trust millions of dollars of property.  There is a certain interest to join the group just considering the value of the land.  The Sisters at Canterbury were determined not to accept a new Brother, but the Sisters at Sabbathday Lake (including Sister Frances Ann) were open to the idea.  They accepted Ted Johnson, a reformed preacher, as a "Brother" and he moved in with them, living, of course, in separate buildings.  Now that they had both a Brother and Sister to accept new converts, they began rebuilding the community.  These are the "three men and women in their 20's" mentioned in the Wikipedia entry above.

Faith had been communicating with Sister Gertrude  and Eldress Bertha at Canterbury and they had decided to send me on a "mission."  Faith handed me a sealed envelope and told me to go to Canterbury.  When I got there I went on the little museum tour with all the other tourists.  At the end of the tour, I was taken aside by the guide and escorted into the main residence kitchen.  There I sat at a table with Sister Gertrude and Eldress Bertha eating a delicious tomato sandwich while they opened and read the letter from Faith.

I was instructed by them to travel to Sabbathday Lake and investigate as much as I could about these "new" Shakers and how the Sisters were being treated.  I did as I was asked and, when I  arrived at my destination I quietly asked how one became a Shaker and would it be possible for me to join?  I had some interesting meetings with those in charge, did some exploring into places not open to the public, and generally looked around.  To me it seemed to be a normal situation, and I reported back that I found nothing unusual.  Except that there were Brothers.

I do not know if one of the Sisters I talked with was Sister Frances Ann.  According to the NYT: "Sister Frances, like the other Shakers, always hoped new members would join the community and welcomed visitors."  That was the feeling I got when I visited such a long time ago.

I wonder how my life would have changed if I had decided to stay.  It was very appealing.

"It's a gift to be simple.  It's a gift to be free.  It's a gift to come down where you ought to be."

My life is not simple.  However, I am free and I believe I am where I ought to be.  Thank you, Faith.


Jeremy said...

An intriguing story, I had the perception that the Shakers had all been gone for some time. It is so interesting the contrast between the ornate things you often work with now and the shaker style, yet after attending ASFM I can see how you could've fit into that world. Thanks for sharing.

Derek Long said...

Fantastic story.

Anonymous said...

You are a very lucky man. The closet I have is a hand written thank you from Amy Bess Miller.