Hearts and Hands | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Hearts and Hands 

Last Updated: 07/08/2013 11:26 am

Originally 196 x 50 feet, the Shakers' 1859 great stone barn was the largest stone barn constructed in US agricultural history. The interior wooden structure, along with three wings attached to the south wall, burned in 1972.
In 1774, the prophetess Ann Lee and her hardy band of religious miscreants fled persecution in England for the freedom of upstate New York. There, the Shakers began to preach and convert people to their unusual religion, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Named for the physical manifestation of their religious fervor, Mother Ann Lee - who claimed to be the female version of the second coming of Christ - the Shakers were a celibate communal society that was one of the most industrious communes the world has ever seen.

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.

wash room of the north family wash house

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."

Fruit drying racks in the wash house
One of the most amazing things about the Shaker lifestyle was their ability to adapt to technological advances in the age of industrialization. The Shakers were using power tools in their industries as soon as they were available, and one section of the museum is filled with huge gears from the many machines they constructed, including one segment of a water wheel that was 26 feet in diameter. Grant showed me a circular saw, a jig saw, and both wood and metal lathes dating from the early 1800s that connected to power sources (usually a water-driven turbine) on the floor beneath the tools.

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."

Stairwell of the N. family workshop
Marty Hylton III is the New Projects Development Manager for the World Monument Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving culturally significant sites around the globe. In 2004 the Great Stone Barn ruins in Mount Lebanon made the World Monuments Watch List as one of the 100 most endangered historical sites in the world. The WMF releases this list every year to raise awareness and money for threatened sites of historical interest and has had a hand in preserving places such as the Great Wall in China and the Taj Mahal. In a phone interview, Hylton explained that "the fundraising has really just started over the last year. There is already a master plan for the site in place and that was paid for with the Save America's Treasures grant in 2001. I was involved with exhaustive historical preservation studies about the North family site and the Barn, as well as the architectural planning by Cooper, Robertson and Partners." He informed me that the current estimate for the project is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 11 million dollars and that they hope to start on the project as soon as possible. But until construction begins, the Great Stone Barn will continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. All that remains for now are the four 50-foot towering stone walls ringing with a dense thicket of locusts and maples that are growing up through what is left of the rotting wooden floor.

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.

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