Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hancock Shaker Village, part one

 Hancock Shaker Village, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was the third Shaker community established, after Watervliet and New Lebanon. Brought together by Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright in 1783, it was formed with land donated to the society by converts in the area. It eventually grew to more than 300 Shakers living on 3,000 acres. The last Shakers left in 1959 and the site has been a museum since 1960. I first visited there in 1974.

The panorama, above, is the view visitors get on entering the site. A new entrance complex contains a ticket counter, introductory displays, a sandwich shop, and a museum store. From there the tour is self guiding, although there are costumed interpreters in the dwelling and some other buildings. In the panorama is the site's signature structure, the round stone barn. It is sufficiently important that I will devote a blog to it later. At the far left is the combined carpentry shop and laundry. The dwelling is immediately to the right of the carpentry shop/laundry.

A combined carpentry shop and laundry? What were they thinking? They were thinking power. This building had an aquaduct carrying water from the hill above the village. It initially had a waterwheel, but that was eventually replaced with a turbine, which remains operable today. We'll take a closer look in a blog devoted to Shaker industry.

The 1830 brick dwelling is one of the finest found at any of the Shaker sites. It housed 100 men and women in a dormitory setting. The sexes were separated by living areas and used different entrances and stairs.  Elders and eldresses oversaw the well being of the community and served as ministers. They were separated from the other Shakers in living and dining accommodations after 1845. Deacons and deaconesses assigned and oversaw work for men and women, respectively. The nature of "men's work" and "women's work" kept the sexes separated in the workplace, as well. There were five other families and more than 300 believers at Hancock at its height.

Here a costumed interpreter answers questions for a couple following a guided tour of the dwelling.

Although the "official position" was that building for beauty was superfluous, Shakers here and elsewhere still slipped great beauty into the construction of their buildings. The rope hanging down was for ringing a bell to call the Shakers to meals.

Across the road from the brick dwelling sits the meeting house. This 1793 structure was built by Shaker Moses Johnson at the Shirley, Massachusetts, Shaker community. It was moved here in 1962 to replace a similar Moses Johnson building that had been torn down in 1938 because it was no longer used. I'll have more to say about Moses Johnson and his meeting houses in a later blog.

The Trustees' Office is where the Shaker village interacted with the world. Both male and female trustees lived in this building, operated a store, hired any help needed, provided meals and lodging to any visitors to the village, and generally carried on all business with the outside world. The building was begun in 1813 and was enlarged in 1852 and again in 1895. The building was given Victorian architectural touches during that final enlargement. The Shakers used this building up until the village closed in 1959. The Hancock web site states that the Shakers came here to play the organ and watch television.

Watch television? Yep. Shaker museums can give us a false impression of life in a Shaker community if they're not careful. The communities started into decline following the U.S. Civil War due sometimes to war-time depletion of resources or, more likely, inability to attract converts due to improved economic conditions. Museum villages tend to interpret life there during the time of greatest success, which typically would be the period from 1840 to 1850. But we know that Shaker communities were very aware of the technological advances going on around them and were quick to adopt any that could prove useful to community life. The photo above is of the Hancock village's first automobile, a 1923 Reo. Large even by 1923 standards, this car was well suited to transporting members of a communal society.

Tomorrow we'll take a look inside the brick dwelling and I'll subject you to the babblings of an architectural junkie, as well as those of a social history nut. In my view, it's one of the most interesting of Shaker buildings.


  1. This is so much more than i needed!!! but will all come in use thanks!!
    Extendable trailers

  2. It seems their utilitarianism in design is what makes their buildings and furniture so simply beautiful.

    1. That's certainly my view. Before I knew Shaker, I was drawn to Danish modern furniture. It was much later when I learned that the designers who created Danish modern were inspired by Shaker.