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The Shaker village at Canterbury, NH - a legacy of furniture, music and gender equality

© By Mike Keenan
  Meeting House It's not surprising that there's no one left in this once prosperous religious society that I explore, an important American artefact housed at Canterbury, New Hampshire, a short drive from Concord, the state capital. Shakers espoused sexual equality yet celibacy; political parity yet physical separation.
     They emigrated to the United States in 1774 and established nineteen self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky. Canterbury Shaker Village is one of the oldest, most typical and most completely preserved of the Shaker Villages. Well worth a visit, one could easily enjoy an entire day Dwelling House here. The Village includes the only intact, first-generation Meeting House, built in 1792, and Dwelling House, built in 1793, in their original locations. Traditional crafts demonstrated in the Village include: broom making, dovetailing, printing, oval box making, poplar weaving and poplar ware construction, wood turning, tinsmithing, spinning and weaving.
     Alas, today only three aged Shakers remain living at Maine's Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. Despite imminent extinction, they were the most successful communitarian and utopian society in American history.
     The formal name, United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, gave way to "Shakers" or Shaking Quakers, founded upon the teachings of Ann Lee who predated the US women's movement known to have begun at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Shakers are mostly known now for their cultural contributions especially their music and furniture.
     In the Educational Center, a video informs me that on August 6, 1774, two years before the Revolution, Ann Lee was one of nine to arrive from Manchester, England. During a slow, nine-year start up, besides missionary work, they supported widows with children and orphans, providing foster care. As pacifists in 1861 during the Civil War, exemption from service was granted by President Lincoln, making them the first US "conscientious objectors."
     Shakers adopted confession from Roman Catholics, and influenced also by the Huguenots, they were known as "monks and nuns without walls." They danced ecstatically during worship, and employed the bible in their teachings. Christian and Utopian, their four main testimonies were: peace, integration, equality and simplicity.

Chapel Organ  Clothes Wringer  Dancing Exhibit  East Woodshed  Greenwods Restaurant  Horse Barn

     Our guide, Jessica, sits us in the Meeting House, separating the two sexes. She informs us that the Shakers wrote hundreds of hymns but didn't copyright them. They line danced, danced in circles and sang a cappella.
     Author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, reportedly tried to join but was advised that the spirit would be manifest to the man and society if he was to be received. Only at age 21, could a covenant be signed to become a true Shaker. Fifty years after Ann's arrival, there were 6,000 members. Unlike the Amish, they listened to the radio and loved technology. They practised physical education and were adept at farming. Shaker food was delicious, and they were hospitable to outsiders. During hard times when hungry neighbours stole plants and crops, they merely planted more.
     As we tour the buildings I understand why Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Besides the circular saw, they invented the rotary harrow, clothespin, Shaker peg, flat broom, wheel-driven washing machine, a machine for setting teeth in textile cards, a threshing machine, metal pens, a new type of fire engine, a machine for matching boards, innovations in waterworks, planing machinery, a hernia truss, silk reeling machinery, small looms for weaving palm leaf, machines for processing broom corn, ball-and-socket tilters for chair legs, and a number of other useful inventions. Shakers were the first large producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets.
     Jessica explains that each village was governed by a leadership team consisting of two men (Elders) and two women (Eldresses). They lived together as brothers and sisters. Each house was divided so that men and women did most things separately. They used different staircases and doors. They sat on opposite sides of the room in worship, at meals, and in "union meetings" during supervised socialization. However, the daily business of a Shaker village required brethren and sisters to interact. Although there was a division of labor between, they cooperated in carrying out many tasks, such as harvesting apples, food production, laundry, and gathering firewood.

Meeting House  School House  Shaker Crafts  Strutural Simplicity  Symbolic Empty Lawn Chairs  Trustees Office - Seperate Entrances

     Shaker religion valued women and men equally in religious leadership. The church was hierarchical, and at each level, women and men shared authority. This is especially evident in the Shaker view that God was both female and male. They believed men and women were equal in the sight of God, and should be treated equally on earth, too.
     Kate Brown, Marketing and Communications Manager, informs me that Canterbury Shaker Village was established in 1792 when followers of founder Mother Ann Lee formed their seventh community in Canterbury, NH, which remained prominent for 200 years. The Village has operated exclusively as a museum since 1992 when the last Shaker sister in residence, Ethel Hudson, died. Designated as a National Historic Landmark for its architectural integrity and significance, the Village boasts 25 restored original Shaker buildings, 4 reconstructed Shaker buildings, and 694 acres of gorgeous forests, fields, gardens, nature trails, and mill ponds under permanent conservation easement.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
This Destination
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Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury,_New_Hampshire
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Touring_Shaker_country
About.com: http://gonewengland.about.com/od/mainesightseeing/ig/Sabbathday-Lake-Shaker-Village/
Churches & Synagogues: http://www.punchbowl.com/vendors/nh-new-hampshire/canterbury/c-churches-+-synagogues
Fiction: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1512855.The_Shakeress ; http://ils.unc.edu/dpr/path/shakers/index.html

Canterbury Shaker Village, 288 Shaker Road, Canterbury NH 03224;
603-783-9511 Website: http://www.shakers.org/
Make sure to dine at Greenwood's, a full-service restaurant in the beautifully reconstructed Blacksmith Shop. It serves Shaker-inspired cuisine and is open every day of the week for luncheon, May 14 to October 31.
I enjoyed corn pudding and lobster pasta. Filling and delicious!
Admission: Adults: $17, Youth (6-17): $8, Children under 6: free.

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