“Sister Ethel liked scaring visitors,” said our guide at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire. Sister Ethel Hudson was the last Shaker to live at Canterbury and she died at age 96 in 1992, when the village had already been running as a part-time museum for over 20 years. “She’d stand in the windows and pretend that she was a ghost.”
Not that she didn’t like tourists; she did. But you know, a girl’s got to have some fun. Toward the end, when she was the lone Shaker in the community, she would sometimes take the men’s staircase instead of the women’s. Shocking!
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was founded in England in the 18th century by disgruntled Quakers. Its members immigrated to the colonies in 1774 and eventually established 19 communities throughout the eastern and southern states, with about 6000 members at its height. Their physically exuberant receipt of the spirit of God during their services gave them the name by which they’re more commonly known: the Shakers.
Says their website: “They challenged almost every mainstream ideal of American society during their time. Shakers believed in community ownership, pacifism, dancing in worship, equality of the sexes, celibacy, and living simply.” They were equal but separate — men and women used separate doors, work rooms and stairs. And they adhered to traditional gender roles: women cooked and sewed, men worked the farm. They were encouraged to commune together — they were, after all, a family — but spent most of their days amongst their own sex. This was to discourage fraternization, said our guide. So, being celibate, how did they grow their community? Converts and adoption. At age 21, the adoptees were allowed to choose to leave or remain.
“The children adopted by the Shakers were lucky,” said the guide. One individual who was a child at Canterbury during the Great Depression said that she had no idea that the Depression was happening, because their village was so self sustaining that it never lacked food and necessities.
For all the animal people out there, I must tell you the story of Dewey. Dewey was a bull terrier adopted as a puppy by the Canterbury Shakers. He was their communal pet, and there are endless photos of him — playing a piano, dressed in costumes, sunbathing. He went with them on summer vacations (yes, Shakers vacationed) and when he got sick and died at age 11, he was buried in the Shaker cemetery.
Shakers believed in using cutting edge technology. After all, every labor saving device was time freed to do more work. Shakers invented, among many other things, the flat broom, the levered clothes pin, the circular saw and the washing machine. And owned the patents to them. The Shakers were not poor.
Canterbury was established in 1792 and at its height in the 1800s, had 3000 acres and 300 people. Sister Ethel died two hundred years after its founding (there are only three Shakers left, living in Sabbathday Lake, Maine) and it has been a full-time museum ever since. It is the best preserved of the Shaker villages, with a 1792 meeting house and a 1793 dwelling place.
About 30 buildings are open to tour and can be self-guided. There are also guided tours, included in the price, for those who want to take them. I wanted to take their Song and Dance Tour — with a name like that, how could I resist — but missed the only one of the day. So we ended up on the general tour, which was excellent (props to guide Austin, who had our group enthralled for almost two hours).
I have to give a shout-out to their on-site gift shop and on-line store, full of Shaker designed products. For several years, Kathie — a lifelong friend (we met at age 13, mumble mumble years ago) and my touring companion on this New England trip — gave me a Shaker box (or two or three) from Canterbury for my birthday. They’re among the most beautiful objects I own.