New Hampshire's Shaker History

The enduring simplicity of the Shakers



The Canterbury Shaker Village Meeting House

Photo by Kathie Fife

A baker’s dozen years into the 21st century, we spin faster and faster through the days. Mostly we spin alone. We stake out a cubicle’s worth of territory at the office, a table’s worth at the coffee shop. Our minds prowl the space between two earbuds, our vision focused on the closest glowing screen. We weave webs of virtual links that boost efficiency and undercut real connection.

We are the World’s People. That was the Shakers’ name for everyone not a Shaker — which today is all humans but three. The World’s People, the Shakers believed, saw life through “the Great I,” solitary and shortsighted. Heart-hungry for “the little I,” the World’s People came to Canterbury and Enfield and the 17 other Shaker villages that once flourished in this country, eager for a glimpse of true community.

They still come. As the leaves turn the surprisingly vibrant colors of the wooden Shaker buildings in Canterbury, as the granite of the Great Stone Dwelling in Enfield shifts its glow from summer gold to winter gray, carloads of the curious from around the world keep following the brown highway signs. They exit onto winding roads, past the tumbled boulder walls of Canterbury and the shore of Mascoma Lake in Enfield, to the refuges where the Shakers aimed to live as simply as the gospel, to surrender their lives to what they called Christian communism.

Shakerism is both a religion and a culture. The religion reached its height amid Americans’ utopian fervor of the mid-19th century and lingers today in miniature: The three Shakers still living at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, hold public worship services and occasionally welcome a novice willing to try the life.

As the pull of celibate communal living has dimmed, the pull of Shaker culture has somehow magnified. These quiet, devout people in their old-fashioned clothes were ingenious innovators and shrewd marketers of the things they made. Quality was the earthly manifestation of their quest for heavenly perfection, and quality products became their “brand.”

The Shaker spirit endures through the material culture of boxes and baskets, furniture and herbs; through thousands of songs (start humming “Simple Gifts” — and then good luck trying to stop); and above all through the ideals the Shakers embodied, the timeless ones for which we all yearn. Simplicity. Love. Equality. Community.

Today, through the museums that preserve their heritage, the Shakers have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Their villages rent space for weddings and run restaurants. Canterbury Shaker Village has created partnerships with organic farmers and a culinary school as part of its “Rethink Tradition” campaign. Its 2013 season began with a heifer parade and spring festival that drew 800 people. Eight Tibetan Buddhist monks spent a week in Canterbury, creating a sand mandala and exploring parallels with their beliefs.

The last Shakers in New Hampshire would have enjoyed these new visitors and connections, according to the people who knew them. For all their separation from the world, Shakers embraced change. They were among the first people in Canterbury and Enfield to install electricity and drive cars; today we’d call them early adopters. The way we use the word disrupt, to describe technology’s impact, would have made perfect sense to them. The Shakers, pacifists all, were a disruptive bunch. New Hampshire, stubbornly determined to live free, provided an ideal laboratory for their labors to create heaven on earth.  

The Shakers began in England as a tiny group of religious dissidents, nicknamed for the way, during worship, the spirit literally moved them.  They were shaking off sin. Ann Lee, a mill worker who had visions of Jesus and of a more welcoming place, brought a band of eight followers to New York in 1774.  But a country headed for war had little appetite for such sacrilege as ecstatic dancing or the idea of a God equal parts female and male.

The Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield Shaker Museum
photo courtesy of Enfield Shaker Museum

“Mother Ann” toured and testified, and her Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, persevered. They established their first community in upstate New York in 1776 and a second in 1787, three years after Ann Lee’s death. As the century wound down, Americans warmed to spiritual exploration. “Picture a neighbor knocking on your door and saying, ‘Hey, this new religion is starting, and my family’s going to join and donate all our land. Want to come too?’” says Michael O’Connor, curator of the Enfield Shaker Museum. “Now picture that the answer is yes.”

That happened in Canterbury, whose Shaker community formed in 1792, in Enfield the following year, and in enough other places from Maine to Kentucky to total 19 communities and 4,500 to 6,000 Shakers by the 1850s. On their huge swaths of land, the Shakers built huge numbers of buildings, one for each task they performed.

Making wool clothing, for instance, required a barn for sheep and then a spinning shop, weaving shop, tailor shop and storage areas. Villages were grouped by “families,” an organizational rather than blood division, and at first each family built its own buildings of each kind. At their height, Canterbury and Enfield each had about 100 buildings for 300 residents, on about 3,000 acres each.

From the start, large doses of practicality leavened the Shakers’ ideals. Even Mother Ann with her visions was described in a 1905 book by two Shaker sisters as “too healthy for hysteria, too well-balanced for insanity.” For the good of the community, the Shakers happily labored all day — hands to work, hearts to God. But the dignity of work did not mean harder work was more dignified. All jobs were considered equal, from laundress to eldress, field hand to business trustee.

Photo courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village

When machines were invented to make a task more efficient, the Shakers bought them. “The time of your life is God’s gift to you,” explains Darryl Thompson, a non-Shaker who grew up at Canterbury Shaker Village and still works there. “How you use that time is your gift to God. If work is worship, then machines and gadgets are good because they save God’s time.”

If a device did not exist, the Shakers created it. Among their many inventions were the clothespin and a steam-powered washing machine, which they sold to hotels and hospitals. To help bread brown evenly, a Canterbury sister patented an oven with a revolving platform much like today’s microwave carousel. The Enfield Shakers went further than most. When the town failed to appropriate money for a bridge over the lake, they financed the bridge themselves. They built mills and leased them to companies, in some cases selling the mills raw materials and then marketing the products.

Enfield made Shaker sweaters for Dartmouth; Canterbury made them for Harvard. The “Dorothy Cloak,” a silk-lined hooded cape designed by a Canterbury sister, became a fashion must-have when Grover Cleveland’s wife wore one to his inauguration. Both villages ran gift shops and used the railroad to deliver “fancy goods” to be sold at the grand resort hotels. Both became famous for their garden seeds, packaged in envelopes printed in Canterbury.

Photo courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village

Shaker seeds grew naturally. Shaker communities, celibate because Mother Ann viewed sex as the source of all sin, grew only by conversion or adoption. Entire families joined, with couples living separately from each other and from their children. Orphans and children of broken homes were dropped off with the Shakers, who educated and cared for them and let them decide at age 21 whether to sign the covenant and stay.

For a time, the system worked; the Shakers became the country’s largest utopian experiment. After the Civil War, however, men had more options for paying jobs with the World’s People. Families needing to place children could turn to social service agencies. Only for women did Shaker life, with its strict equality, offer clear advantages over the world outside. So Shaker villages continued as primarily female communities, delegating some tasks to hired help.

With buildings built and routines in place, life had room for a little leisure. Residents of New Hampshire’s two Shaker villages got together for picnics, took photos by the score, played musical instruments and performed in fully costumed theatre troupes. The Canterbury Shakers established a camp at Lake Winnisquam and eventually bought two speedboats. Numbers dwindling, they were speeding toward a future Mother Ann had not envisioned.

A path at Canterbury Shaker Village
Photo by Kathie Fife

Shakers saw a garden in a seed, the eternal in the temporal. Luckily, so did Bud Thompson. He visited Canterbury in the late 1950s, a singer looking for songs. By 1959 the sisters had invited him and his family to move in, to help them give tours and maintain the place. The next year, he worked with them to establish the village as a museum. Thus, decades before the last sister died in 1992, a nonprofit was already dedicated to preserving 200 years of Shaker life in Canterbury.

The Enfield story is more complex. When the last few Shakers left Enfield for Canterbury in 1923, they sold their remaining land to the LaSalette Catholic priests, who ran a seminary there before selling the property to developers in 1986. The Enfield Shaker Museum formed that year and began buying back buildings. Gradually the museum is restoring the interior of the Great Stone Dwelling, which at 30,000 square feet is the largest Shaker living space ever built.

A song, an invention, the inspiration for a building — all these are gifts from God, not individual accomplishments. This belief explains why Shakers did not start patenting their inventions until they realized others were stealing them. As a result, scholars now debate some details — what inventions, which songs, how many.

On the simple gifts the Shakers wished for us, however, their friends readily agree:  

Serenity, says Funi Burdick, executive director of Canterbury Shaker Village. “People love our programs, but often what they want to do here is just sit in the Adirondack chairs, stare at the pond and absorb the peace.”

Respect, says Galen Beale, who has worked as an herbalist at both New Hampshire villages and learned the Shaker craft of poplarware from a blind Canterbury sister. “Everyone contributed. If you were too old to sew, you sat with the group and straightened pins. The way they dealt with one another is truly inspirational.”

Love, say the Thompsons. “I grew up among the gentlest people,” says Darryl, who was a year old when his family moved to the village. Adds his father, Bud, “If we had been blood relatives, they could not have loved us more.”

Community, says Michael O’Connor, the Enfield curator. “You can’t interpret the Great Stone Dwelling as anything but a massive statement: Look what’s possible if we all work together.” 


Photo courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village

Modern Connections

The legacy of the Shakers lives on. Here are some ways you can enjoy their simple gifts.

Plug In

Imagine what the early 19th-century Shakers would have thought of today's social media — Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and all the rest. According to the people who knew the last Shaker sisters in Canterbury, they would have loved it. They were innovators and saw change as part of their mission. Follow the communities at Canterbury and Enfield online.

Canterbury: @ShakerVillageNH, facebook.com/CanterburyShakerVillage
Enfield: @enfieldshaker, facebook.com/ShakerMuseum

"Rethink Tradition"

Part of rethinking tradition, the Canterbury Shaker Village motto, is finding new ways to share and educate. In August the village announced it was partnering with Lakes Region Community College to house the college's culinary arts, pastry arts and restaurant management programs. In October the college will re-open the village's restaurant facility, with students helping to create and serve meals.

Hit the Trail

People who enjoy Shaker villages tend to travel to several of them (there are 15 altogether, nine that are open to the public). To make travel easier and to enhance the visits, the National Park Service has set up a Shaker Historic Trail, which includes Canterbury and Enfield. The Trail's website will tell you the significance of each site and link you to three essays — "The Shakers," "Utopias in America" and "Shaker Style" — to provide context for your visit. There's lodging and dining info too.

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