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Alfred, Maine is a tidy village with an antiquarian bookshop and a blue country store. It's a place that warrants dallying in. The Shakers—also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, and famous for their furniture—certainly thought so. The group owned a large amount of property here from 1793 until 1931, with a meeting house and more than 50 buildings on the property when the religion was at its height. By 1931, only a handful of Shakers remained and the property was sold.
The town has several Shaker buildings and a cemetery still remaining. As I walked along an avenue to reach six Shaker tombstones, I chatted with one of the Brothers of Christian Instruction, the religious organization which now owns the Shakers' land. Now in his seventies, this man moved to Alfred 59 years ago at the age of 13.
"Simple Gifts, the Shakers' most famous song, was written right here," he said. "I'll sing it to you if you'd like, although my voice might not be so good after working all morning."
He did so, beautifully, turning around slowly when the song instructed. When he finished, we continued walking, as though singing spontaneously to strangers was the world's most natural idea. It was a touching moment, one that showed the gentleness and kindness of these people who consciously decided to live simply.
After their land in Alfred was sold in the '30s, the remaining Shakers moved to Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The world's last remaining practitioners of the religion—two men and two women—still live there today. The tiny group says it welcomes new members.
The four live in a settlement that dates back to 1783, showing all the classic Shaker traits: tall buildings with windows flat to their sides, immaculate gardens and pathways, different workshops for men and women, and a calm atmosphere of purposeful work. Brother Arnold Hadd, the youngest of the four at 51, told me all Shakers must keep to the "Three Cs": celibacy, communal ownership and confession of sin. Other tenets of the religion include a belief in pacifism, the equality of all people, the dual nature of God as male and female, and that the second coming of Christ takes place within the true believer rather than in a literal physical sense.
Hadd, who has lived here since the 1970s, was busy preparing for the tourism season along with the nephew of another Shaker. While Sabbathday Lake is the only place where real Shakers still live, most Shaker sites enjoy a committed network of employees, volunteers and friends who work at preserving and continuing the legacy of architecture, crafts and other products.
A volunteer at another location told me that since the birth of the religion, the Shakers had gained more than 4,000 patents. They invented the circular saw, the clothespin and the flat-bottom broom, among other things. Shaker furniture is a well-established style that is still popular today, and original pieces sell at auction for stunning sums of money.
Looking at Sabbathday Lake's furniture, pruned apple trees and small, immaculate details, it is apparent that everything was and is being done to fulfill the words of the religion's 18th-century founder, Mother Ann Lee: "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow."
The same functional neatness exists at Canterbury, New Hampshire, which ceased being a Shaker community only in 1992. The view of this site from the bottom of the hill is delightful. It has a garage built in 1927—unlike some Amish and Mennonite groups, Shakers have always used current technology. Nothing is ostentatious and all is ingeniously practical.
Nowhere is that more evident than at the largest Shaker museum and attraction in New England: Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachussetts. Hancock educates visitors about Shaker life, most notably on popular weeks such as its Baby Animals Days in April and Country Fair in September.
Hancock Shaker Village's president, Ellen Spear, told me, "It's a revelation to children, some of whom do not know where their food comes from, to see how communities worked together to produce all they needed." A major exhibit of Shaker products and furniture (the Andrews Collection) begins at the village this year, before leaving on a nationwide tour in 2010. Visitors also learn that Shakers were not so different from them. One myth is that Shakers shook during religious ceremonies. They moved and danced, but not in the frenzy suggested by early detractors—the group's common name derived from such ideas.
The first Shaker community, in New Lebanon, New York, is now used as a school. Even though its function has changed, there is no mistaking it as a former Shaker village. A mile away as the crow flies (although several miles by modern Routes 22 and 20) is the village's former mill, now the Inn at the Shaker Mill Farm B&B, with an idyllic spot by a waterfall. I stayed at the Hitchcock House B&B, which was built by Shakers for a non-Shaker. Owner Ted Delano reminisces about the area's Shakers, whom he remembers from his youth. Several graceful, delicate, oval Shaker boxes decorate his living room.
Many Shaker villages and buildings have disappeared, or as in the case of Colonie, New York and Enfield, Connecticut, have been overwhelmed by modern expansion. These two examples struggle to survive within the bounds of a municipal airport and prison, respectively. In other areas, it seems as though every street and house is called Shaker—this or Shaker-that.
What I ended up with on my tour was that all these sites are peaceful, gentle and happy places, and an important part—continuingly so—of the fabric of New England and of American heritage.
For online directions to these sites, use AAA's TripTik Travel Planner at www.AAA.com/Directions. Your AAA Travel professional can assist you in planning a New England vacation; visit any branch office or www.AAA.com/Travel.