Shaker Communities; The Remnants of Kingdom Come

Three remain. Not three villages, but three people. That’s of thousands who once counted themselves among the believers, scattered in two dozen communities from the Deep South to New England to the Midwest. Now just two women and a man–the last of the Shakers–live at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. If you’re still a good stretch from average life expectancy, you may play witness to the end of the Shaker era.

Unless, of course, they find converts, but even the Shakers themselves always conceded that their covenant was a tough one to observe: communal living, confession of sin, celibacy. Alas, humans are, well, human, and Utopian aspirations aside, the number of Shakers began a century-and-a-half decline from a zenith in the mid-19th century when there were more than 5,000 of them.

Though individual Shakers may be gone soon, their footprints will not. More than a dozen Shaker historical districts and villages honor their notable influence on American culture, preserving their straightforward, utilitarian architecture and furnishings, honoring their legacy of inventiveness. Shakers get credit for the flat broom, circular saw and seeds packaged in paper for sale. Shakers were proud of their work and their motto: “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.”

Sabbathday Lake     Sabbathday Lake (2)

Sabbathday Lake (3)

Scenes from Sabbathday Lake in Maine. Top: A cemetery marker that says simply, “Shakers”

Their pride is the reason you won’t find many crumbling traces of historic Shakers, and their rules, or “Millennial Laws,” say as much: “Buildings which get out of repair, should be repaired soon, or taken away, as is most proper.” Shakers dismantled perhaps hundreds of their structures rather than letting them tumble down.

The meetinghouses, dwellings and barns that Shakers did leave behind are in a good state of preservation and have often been repurposed. But if you know where to look, you can still find a glimpse of the Shakers’ vanishing history, because around their communities the land was their livelihood. Today their stone walls are being reclaimed by the forest, their pastures have taken on new life. These are the skeletons of the Shakers’ work, but more so, the traces of a way of life that may soon exist no more.

A good place to begin your journey is with the National Park Service on the Shaker Historic Trail. There’s a good article here, too, from Down East on the last few Shakers. Below are photos of a handful of former Shaker communities. Be sure to share in the comments where you’ve seen the Shakers’ hands on the landscape.

Watervliet Shaker Community (2)      Watervliet Shaker Community (3) Watervliet Shaker Community (4)

A Shaker cemetery at Watervliet Shaker Historic District near Albany, New York. Bottom: Marker for the founder of the American Shakers, Mother Ann Lee

Watervliet Shaker Community     Watervliet Shaker Community (5) Watervliet Shaker Communinity

Watervliet Shaker Historic District near Albany, New York

Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (5)

Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Shaker Museum, Mount Lebanon, New York

Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (2)   Mount Lebanon Shaker Community 3    Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (4) Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (3)

The North Family Great Stone Barn, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Mount Lebanon, New York

Mount Lebanon Shaker Community    Mount Lebanon Shaker Community 4 Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (6)

Scenes from Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. Top: An old barn and a stone wall reclaimed by nature. Bottom. A view of the North Family Great Stone Barn from land once worked by the Mount Lebanon Shakers.

Hancock Shaker Village (2)

Hancock Shaker Village

Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock, Massachusetts.

Shaker Community Berkshires

A quiet Shaker village deep in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at
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6 Responses to Shaker Communities; The Remnants of Kingdom Come

  1. Pingback: simpleNewz - Abandoned Country RSS Feed for 2014-12-07

  2. Jamie says:

    Hello Ben,

    I came across your website today and look forward to reading all the posts. There is something compelling about the footprints left by our forebears.

    I once lived along the shores of Lake Ontario near the Sodus Bay Shaker Tract. Reading your post brought back some memories!

  3. Janice Campbell says:

    I’m thankful for your voicing the concern that many of us share as we see history disappearing. We are VERY thankful to live in Mercer County Kentucky where history is appreciated. Our home is 3 miles from the entrance to Pleasant Hill, a Shaker Village that has been restored to such a beautiful, serene place. A visitor may dine in the Trustees Building, tour many buildings, spend the night in the many rooms available. Many activities as it is open year-round. I worked there for 10 years 🙂

  4. Dave G says:

    When I lived in New Hampshire we visited the Canterbury Shaker Village north of Concord.

    It was quite an impressive farming and industrial complex where they manufactured baskets, furniture and cutlery, including very innovative manufacturing techniques that are still practiced today. There were 2 matrons still living there in the mid 90’s but I guess they’re gone now.

    Well worth visiting to understand their contributions to our heritage.

  5. Candis says:

    I too have visited Pleasant Hill in KY. Such a magical place.
    New to this site and just can’t stop perusing the entries!

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