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.”
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.
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 Historic District near Albany, New York
Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Shaker Museum, Mount Lebanon, New York
The North Family Great Stone Barn, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Mount Lebanon, New York
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, Hancock, Massachusetts.
A quiet Shaker village deep in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.