Friday, September 21, 2012

Canterbury Shaker Village, part 2

In addition to the meeting house and dwellings, Shaker villages were packed with all sorts of buildings that supported their lives and commerce. For example, the yellow building immediately behind the meeting house was the ministry shop.

The elders and eldresses of the ministry lived apart from the community, typically in the upstairs of the meeting house, but they were not excused from contributing to the common good. They would practice whatever trades they were adept at in a ministry shop located near the meeting house, and the products of their labors would be either used by members of the community or sold to contribute cash to the society.

There were barns to house the village's livestock. This 1819 horse barn is a striking example of New England architecture with its shingle siding.

Every village had a Trustees' Office; this is Canterbury's, built in 1831. Here the village trustees would conduct business with the world and overnight guests would be housed and fed. There were both male and female trustees, and as in the rest of the village the sisters and brothers had their own sections in which to live and work.

It took large quantities of wood to cook and provide heat in winter. This is the last remaining wood shed at Canterbury. A nearby identical one was destroyed when the 1858 cow barn burned in 1973. The foundation stones for the cow barn can be seen in the gap between the woodshed and the yellow building at left.

A display near the former barn has photos. It was 200 feet x 45 feet and housed 100 dairy cattle. A 25 foot ramp provided access at either end. These ramps survive.

In 1910 the Shakers built a powerhouse and had electric lights in 16 buildings. The powerhouse contained a gasoline-powered, direct-current generator and storage batteries. Lines were run to the village in 1925 and the Shakers then purchased power from the local utility, but the powerhouse was kept as a backup.

I like this picture because it illustrates so well the Shaker emphasis on utility over aesthetics. When electricity was distributed through the village, they simply strung wires from building to building instead of building power lines with poles to support them. This building is the 1816 Sisters' Shop.

The 1785 Syrup Shop predates the Shakers at Canterbury. It belonged to Benjamin Whitcher, an early convert whose lands became part of the Canterbury holdings. It may have been used as a lodging in the beginning. The Shakers used it to make medicinal syrups, most famously Thomas Corbett's Compound Concentrated Syrup of Sarsaparilla, known as "The Great Purifier of the Blood and other Fluids of the Body." Before we condemn the Shakers for peddling snake-oil patent medicines, let's keep in mind that Queen Victoria stood at the head of the greatest opium distribution system ever. Times change.

Although celibate, there were always children in Shaker villages. Some came with parents who had been converted with the families broken up, others were orphans, and still others were dropped off by destitute parents who could no longer provide for them. No child was turned away. They were fed, clothed, and educated, both in academic subjects and the trades. On becoming of age, they were free to leave or stay and sign the covenant. Typically girls received classroom instruction in summer, boys in winter. And at Canterbury, they had indoor toilets!

OK, it's not exactly what you thought, but they were indoor. The children did not have to venture outside to answer nature's calls; it was just down a hall from the classroom. And I can imagine how much warmer it was on cold winter mornings.

There's much, much more to see at Canterbury, but I'll cut it off here. The museum has an excellent web site with a section on historic buildings that is well worth visiting. For your convenience, you can do that by clicking here.

A last word about the final photograph. Here there are dry-stack stone fences, as we saw at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Kentucky. But unlike the flat limestone rocks in Kentucky, these are made of rocks that were rounded by glaciers thousands of years ago.


  1. What a wonderful series of posts, Jim! The Shaker aesthetic is so pure and practical and beautiful. We visited one of the smaller Shaker villages long ago -- I'm amazed at the size and the density of building in Canterbury.