October 02, 2003

Canterbury Shaker Village

It was co-o-o-old out this morning! We left the Pilgrim Inn and headed off on a Curves hunt. If you find yourself in Plymouth, NH, beware that their traffic circle requires people on the circle to yield to people entering instead of the other way around. Very odd, very dangerous. Anyway, we found the Curves after negotiating the curves. I sat out in the car and read (re-read, actually) Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. I had to start the car and run the heat to keep from turning into a popsicle, though.

Last night we decided that today we would go to Canterbury Shaker Village, and if we had time go on to Concord, NH before heading to Portsmouth to see our friends John and Jeannie and their multi-talented daughter Ann.

The last practicing Shaker to live in Canterbury died a number of years ago so the place is more of a time capsule of what it was like when there were Shakers than an actual living community.

Canterbury Shaker Village, NHThe site is operated as a non-profit museum and education center. We took the "Shaker story tour" which was a good overview of the history and beliefs of the group. They're another one of those religious orders based on a divine revelation to a single charismatic person, in this case Ann Lee who had a vision of a heaven on Earth consisting of men and women living to worship and work in preparation for Christ's second coming. A vision of men and women living together in celibacy. There were a number of questions on the tour about how they expected their ranks to grow if they weren't going to procreate. The answer was that the grew through recruiting whole families, and by taking in orphans.

Despite the staid image the celibate community implies, their worship practices sound to have been particularly raucous with speaking in tongues and singing and dancing. All with men and women separate, but still it sounds like they had some fun.

The group was amazingly progressive for its time and for a fringe religious order of any time. The governing of the community was conducted by elders, both men and women. They accepted members of all races. This is in a community founded in 1780!

The Shakers were also no Luddites. Their mission was "Hands to work, hearts to God," and any modern convenience that would make their work in God's name more productive, they adopted. They were the first in the area to have electricity, the first with telephones, the first to have automobiles. They're credited with many inventions related to the automation of work including the modern industrial-size washing machine. Flower garden at CanterburyThis particular village made much of its living in the production of medicinal herbs in dried, seed, and pill form which they sold by mail order to customers all over the world.Becky check's out the Canterbury vegetable garden

But while they changed their methods of work with the times, the growth of their communities failed as times changed. Now, the Shakers are nearly extinct. They leave behind a legacy of their way of life preserved in museums like this, and an enduring design sensibility in furniture and other useful crafts.

The Canterbury Shaker Village has a number of buildings with rooms arrayed as they would have been when the village was at its height with furniture, clothing, and other artifacts available for viewing. They also have some craftspeople on site demonstrating some of the work that the group did including broom making, spinning and weaving, gardening, building. They seem to have been fairly rigorous about reconstructing buildings in the way that they were built originally, right down to using the same kinds of materials gathered on the site. newly-raised barn at CanterburyIn particular they had recently rebuilt an old barn when we were there and all the lumber they used was harvested from trees on the site. It's almost shocking to see 2-foot-wide boards in use in construction in this day and age.

My only gripe about the site, and it's a mild one, is that they don't allow any photography inside the buildings so I was unable to capture the interesting furniture they had on display. I was able, of course, to buy a book in the gift shop showing representative designs, but it's just not the same as having a visual reminder of a specific piece you've actually been in the same room with.

In addition to the story tour, there are a number of other tours investigating other aspects of Shaker life more deeply. You could easily spend a whole day here.

We headed off towards Portsmouth on highway 4 where we were able to spend our first night in a private home since our trip started. Conversation, entertainment, a wonderful meal, a real bed, and high speed internet access. Bliss!

Posted by jeffy at October 2, 2003 09:54 PM

I believe the circular saw was invented by
Sister Tabitha Babbitt, a Shaker.
Is there a simplicity tie-in with your Shaker
village visit, Jeff?

Posted by: Dan L at October 5, 2003 01:01 PM

There is certainly a connection to our interest in life simplification, though the visit had more to do with opportunity, historical curiosity, and multiple recommendations than any intention to model ourselves after them. Obviously the celibacy thing is right out, but their brand of simplicity also demands a distressing amount of hard work. Real-world utopian efforts are always interesting, though.

I had heard the circular saw attributed to Sister Babbitt before and it was actually mentioned during the tour we took as well. The date I'm aware of for her invention is 1810, but this discussion on the oldtools mailing list claims that there's a British patent for a circular saw dating to 1771 (see thread for attribution). If both of these tidbits are true, the question becomes whether Sister Babbitt was aware of the prior art or invented the device independently. I'd like to believe that the latter is the case. It's a great story.

Posted by: Jeff Youngstrom at October 5, 2003 07:55 PM