It is Maine to the core: a trim hamlet of red barns and white houses lining the country road, neatly plowed fields and, down the road, the village burying ground.
The only difference is that there is but one stone in the cemetery, a big granite block that says simply, "Shakers."
People always think the Shakers must surely be defunct by now, since they believe in celibacy. But there are eight Believers here, aged from the mid-twenties up, and three more, all in their eighties, at the Canterbury, N.H., community.
"Children have always come to the schoolhouse," said Bruce Smith, a young Quaker from Philadelphia who guides visitors through the compound. "Some were local kids and some were children of people who joined the group. When they were in their teens they could decide whether to become Shakers or not."
That means, in brief, a belief in "celibate life, nonresistance, community of goods, universal brotherhood." Shakers have always stood for equality of the sexes, equality of labor and property, freedom of speech and thought. Their simplicity in dress, speech and furniture is famous. They still say "yea" and "nay." And their devotion to the spiritual life has led them, curiously but after all logically, to invent scores of labor-saving devices to allow more time for prayer.
The first circular saw, the first washing machine, the clothespin, the screw propeller, the overshot water wheel, the flat broom, the cordless window sash balance, built-in cabinets--all are theirs, along with the swivel chair (shared with Thomas Jefferson), an early threshing machine and the clock reel for measuring wool skeins as they are wound off the spinner, giving a loud Snap! every 40 turns and thus inspiring "Pop Goes the Weasel."
It was in a Shaker medical shop that Gail Borden learned the evaporation process that led to condensed milk. And the first car to be seen in these parts was a 1908 Selden that the Believers had bought. They are certainly not to be confused with the Amish, who also dress simply but who reject current technology.
Who are these people who call themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearance?
The first stirrings began in France in 1689 with the Camisard movement, which ran to visions and trances, producing the "leaping, shouting, singing and shaking" that resulted in the name. A group formed in Manchester, England, in 1747 under James and Jane Wardley, former Quakers. Nine years later young Ann Lee of Toad Lane, illiterate, a blacksmith's daughter, joined them.
They were persecuted. Ann Lee was beaten, stoned, imprisoned. Once she was kept for 14 days without food or water in a cell so small she could neither stand nor lie down. A young boy kept her alive by feeding milk and wine through the keyhole by a long-stemmed pipe, and her guards were astonished when she strode out vigorously after the two weeks.
In 1774 the woman who would become Mother Ann to generations of Shakers sailed to America because of a revelation she had had. She founded a community at Watervliet, N.Y., and from there the religion spread to 11 states. At one time last century there were 6,000 Shakers in about 20 communities.
Typically, their idea of the Second Coming is no dramatic spectacular, with the heavens opening and the sky turning gold and the elect ascending, but a quiet, internal event of private joy in the hearts of those who sought to live as a family of angels in an earthly heaven.
Sabbathday Lake's meetinghouse dates from 1794, the schoolhouse from 1880, the herb house with its drying racks--still in use, still producing 70 varieties of herbs for sale--in 1824.
They are a gentle people, modest and hard-working, whose desire to be in the world but not of it makes them retiring and hard to know. The simplest way to understand them is to tour their meetinghouse. This is easy to arrange. You stop at the herb shop (sweet cicely vinegar, lady's-mantle, pennyroyal, queen of the meadow, mullein,boneset, borage, yarrow, angelica root . . .) and ask for a guide.
You visit the old meeting room, still used twice a week (public invited on Sundays--who knows when a convert will show up?), still furnished with facing benches for men and women, movable so the floor can be cleared for the famous "shaking."
"They stopped the dancing in 1900," says Smith, the guide. "Most of them were getting kind of old for that, and besides, the public was present. This is the only meetinghouse still in regular use. Canterbury is still active but it's closed to new members."
The meetings are rather like Quaker meetings, with people speaking out as the spirit calls. There are Bible readings and a lot of singing. Shaker spirituals are famous: "Simple Gifts," written by Joseph Bracket, became the gravely melodic theme for Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring."
The walls are white plaster with beautiful charcoal-blue horizontal ribs studded with pegs from which to hang clothes and chairs and anything else that clutters. The blue is a stain made of blueberry, indigo and buttermilk. It hasn't been touched since it was put there in 1796.
Here is a woman's bedroom, spare and neat, with a built-in cabinet, a bed with rope stretchers, a patented Shaker stove with a superheater chamber atop the firebox, a sort of afterburner for the hot ashes, and three legs for better balance on the uneven floor. Smart. A homespun apron of Mozambique cloth, wool and silk, lies across the bed.
"The first working silk farm in America was at the Shaker community in Pleasantville, Kentucky," Smith remarks casually.
They dressed the same year-round, using homespun until this century. The women always wore bonnets, but no longer are required to here. The traditional hooded, heavy wool, satin-lined Dorothy cloak, designed by Dorothy Durgin, for which orders used to be taken in the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel in New York every Christmas (colors: purple, red, yellow, dark blue), is still available at the store here for $250.
And the chairs. Shaker chairs are known all over the world for their elegant spare lines, their lightness, their durability. They are still made in seven sizes ($70-$110 at the store today; once they sold for about $4), and were built by many communities, each of which had a unique design for the knobs that top the traditional ladderbacks. You can still find maker's marks on the rungs. For years they were made to order: narrow and short for a narrow, short sister, extra long for an extra long brother. The seat is not of cane, which cracks irrevocably, but of tightwoven wool strips, which can be repaired with needle and thread when they wear out.
On the bedside table is a clay pipe.
"The sisters' pipes had shorter stems," observes the guide, "because they had no beards. Lots of them smoked until 1873, when Anna White, who was an eldress at New Lebanon N.Y. , noticed that the smokers had this persistent cough. So she banned smoking there, and that meant it was banned in all the communities, because the elders and eldresses had that much influence."
The ministry, incidentally, is always divided equally between the sexes like everything else.
In a workroom is a table with raised edges. This was for sorting seeds or buttons: The little bulwark kept them from rolling off, but a small opening permitted you to sweep a few at a time into a bag. Neat.
There is a patented chair tilter, a swiveling foot that keeps the leg end squarely on the floor when you tilt. There is a model of the 12-foot-long automatic washing machine developed 109 years ago at New Lebanon to launder clothes for 1,500 people, with its steam-operated agitator and two tons of soapstones.
There is a stocking stretcher to prevent shrinking and a mitten stretcher with sliding thumb to fit any size and a dressmaker's curve for measuring the shoulders, arms and legs. There is a pair of permanent-press, waterproof glazed pants made a century ago and still nicely creased. There are built-in window shutters and men's work boots with tiny iron horseshoes on the heels. (The women made them change to soft-soled boots when they entered the bare-floored meetinghouse.) The boots have no lefts or rights but are all from one last.
Mirrors: so small they only show half the face at a time. This was to combat vanity. (The men talked the women into letting them have longer ones so they could trim their beards.)
The colors of the walls, like the Shakers themselves, are mild but hardy: a yellow made of pumpkin and goldenrod, a red of bloodroot, a butternut stain on the delicate oval boxes turned out by the late Brother Delmer Wilson, who built any number of ingenious devices at Sabbathday, including a motorized apple grader and an automatic water pump. The box sides are made of a single thin belt of wood ending in a zigzag shape like fingers that come to points. This prevents buckling or warping.
The great impression that these rooms give is simplicity: a life close to the earth, as light and graceful and free of complications as, well, one of their chairs, a life scaled to the village, the family, the person. Many Shaker products, even spinning wheels, are signed. A sewing box made by Henry Green in Alfred, Maine, has a list of names on it and a date, 1910.
"This is one way we keep track of our history," says Smith. Even the everyday people find a place in the everyday memoirs of this gentle family. It was Elder John Coffin, the society's gardener in Civil War days, who spearheaded the campaign for a new dwelling house, built finally in 1884. Sisters Eunice Bangs and Aurelia Mace were the first teachers at the school. Elder Otis Sawyer is remembered as a builder and renovator, writing in 1876:
"The meeting house, which has not been shingled since the time it was built in 1794, became so worn and leaky that it was found absolutely necessary to reshingle it . . . The flat roof on the ministry's dwelling leaked like a riddle and the nuisance was taken off and a common double inclined roof put on . . ."
Outside, the sidewalk is of solid granite six inches thick ("granite was discovered on the society's land about 1/4 mile west of the church . . ." writes Sister Mildred Barker in her booklet printed by the Shaker Press at Sabbathday Lake). The building foundations are granite, some of it dating from the days before dynamite, when each piece had to be broken off by drilling a row of holes in it, filling them with water, which then turned to ice, expanding enough to crack the rock.
In recent years controversy has risen around the trust fund reputed to be of several million dollars, all that is left of the lands and buildings of the many defunct Shaker communities. The whole business made members uneasy, and it seems to have influenced the decision of the Canterbury eldress to close her chapter to new members in 1965, leaving this village as the last remaining active Shaker community. Another problem was that the last male member there had died, so that there would be no counselor to instruct a male novice. The situation apparently was cleared up when the money was diverted into a nonprofit Shaker museum corporation.
Just nine years ago the Friends of the Shakers were organized to raise money for restoration of the 17 buildings at Sabbathday Lake and other projects to assist what is now usually called the United Society of Shakers.
So the Believers endure, attracting a new member from time to time and accepting the friends who want to be part of their simple life of work and prayer, if only for a while. To the Shakers, the material contributions for which they are famous are not as important as the spiritual aura, the serenity they have created in a frantic age. Perhaps someday, Sister Mildred says, they will even turn out to be "the leaven that leaveneth the whole lump."