Monday, July 23, 2007

Shaker Saturday

On Saturday we drove up into western Massachusetts for a quick trip through the Berkshires. It's a beautiful area with several picturesque towns, including Stockbridge, which served as Norman Rockwell's home and source of inspiration for years. Our primary destination, however, was the Hancock Shaker Village, a once thriving Shaker community that was sold and turned into a museum in the early 1960s. The grounds include a working farm, complete with cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs. (My kids had recently watched Charlotte's Web, so they were amused to discover four little pink piglets running about. They are awfully cute . . . although they won't convince me to abandon my love of bacon, ham, and pork chops.)

The boys had a hard time grasping the idea that this was a religious community in which about 100 people had lived and worked together. "Why aren't they here anymore," my younger son asked, but wasn't satisfied with the explanation about how their numbers dwindled until there weren't any Shakers left at Hancock by the late 1950s. "Hands to work and hearts to God," was a basic Shaker creed and its significance to their lives is evident throughout the grounds, with various buildings and workshops devoted to their daily labors. That concept the kids could readily understand, even as they still puzzled over the Shakers' rule of celibacy.

During the acme of Shaker membership in the mid-19th century there were communities scattered throughout the eastern U.S. and they could rely on sufficient adult converts and adoptions from orphanages to maintain their numbers. Now, only one Shaker community remains with a handful of members at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, remnants of a movement started in England in the mid-1700s and brought to America in 1774.

The most notable feature at Hancock is its famous "round barn," constructed in 1826. It's still considered an architectural marvel and reflected the Shakers' exceptional design and construction skills, the creative process itself considered an "act of prayer." Its design also underscores an emphasis on efficiency, seen in everything from their furniture to their tools. I've visited Hancock several times and still stand in awe of the barn's beauty. The interior, with its elaborate skeleton of wood posts and beams, really reminds one of a cathedral, which is a fair analogy given the Shakers' regard for work as another form of worship. If you're ever in western Massachusetts, I strongly recommend a visit. It's just outside of Pittsfield and only a few minutes away from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

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