Whole Lot of Shakerin’ Goin’ On
Before the industrial revolution, living alone was virtually unheard of for people without the means to keep a staff. This appears to have been the principal draw, apart from spiritual striving, for followers of the strange religion popularly known as The Shakers. The tidy, well-run, and, in many ways, forward-thinking communities of the Shakers provided sanctuary for orphaned and abandoned children and for adults who would, otherwise, have been on their own. The price was celibacy—no great sacrifice considering that this was a tax these loners were presumably accustomed to paying.
Who knows how the Shakers fare in heaven, but their profound aesthetic legacy certainly guarantees them eternal life here on earth. The refinement that both male (carpentry; tool design) and female (weaving) Shakers brought to the early American vernacular farm aesthetic is nothing short of divine. The Shakers worshiped simplicity and efficiency—presaging the modernist mantra, form-follows-function, by more than a century. But, unlike the moderns, they prized perfection over productivity. Nonetheless, in their heyday, their output was such that the sale of their exquisite products—chairs, boxes, baskets, brooms—left them well fixed. When, in the early-through-mid-20th century, the sun finally set on the Shaker experiment, the objects they had made for their own use brought them short-term salvation, thanks to eager collectors. The most active and knowledgeable of these, John S. Williams, Sr. of Columbia County and Faith and Edward Deming Andrews, antiques dealers from Litchfield County, regularly infused cash into the dwindling coffers of the increasingly all-female Shaker communities in exchange for artifacts. The Williams and Andrews collections are now both on view nearby; the Williams permanently at the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, NY, and the Andrews until October 31st, twenty minutes distant at the Hancock Shaker Village, at the western border of Pittsfield, MA.
Hancock Village is a restored Shaker community, with acres of gardens, antique-breed livestock, a score of interesting buildings, demonstrations, documentaries, a café, and a gift shop—in short, a full-and-satisfying day’s destination, with something to interest curious people of all ages and inclinations.
The Shaker Museum and Library is much smaller, housed in the converted barns of the late collector, John S. Williams, Sr. This will be of greatest interest to Shaker-furniture buffs, as it is considered to be the finest single collection in the world. There is a gift shop but no café. However, just across the road, the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company sells cheese and yogurt. (The sheep barns are also open to the public.) Picnic tables are available at both the museum and the sheep farm. The charming Old Chatham Country Store is also nearby (at the intersection of Route 13 and Albany Turnpike Road), and serves excellent salads and sandwiches.
Hancock Shaker Village
Route 20, Pittsfield; 800.817.1137; 413.443.0188
Daily 10 – 5
Admission: $15/adults, $7.50/ages 13-17, free for those 12 and under.
Shaker Museum and Library
88 Shaker Museum Road; Old Chatham; 518 794-9100
Wednesday – Monday; 10 - 5
Admission: $8/adults, $4/ages 8 - 17; free for children 7 and under