New England Shaker sampler

When you first see the village, sleeping on the flank of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, you think of impossibly perfect places: Shangri-La, Brigadoon, Moon River. You think of the world the way it ought to be: everything clean, orderly and light, with everyone working together. You think of heaven on Earth, which would sit just right with the people who lived here at Hancock Shaker Village.

They were the Shakers, members of a radical religious sect who came to America from England in 1774. Though the religion, which is rooted in Christianity, never caught on widely, its members’ achievements were many. The flat broom and the seed packet are widely considered to have been Shaker inventions. Their now highly prized ladder-back chairs, burnished oval boxes and trustworthy woven baskets dull the distinction between art and craft. At needful times, a haunting Shaker song (above left) might come to mind, borrowed by Aaron Copland in “Appalachian Spring.”

The Shakers believed heaven could be here and now on Earth for devotees who shunned the wicked world by joining celibate communal colonies such as the one that persisted at Hancock from 1783 to 1959. Membership in the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing peaked by 1840 at about 6,000 but then went into a long, slow decline. Today there is only one active village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with four Shaker brothers and sisters.

“Put your hands to work and your hearts to God,” Mother Ann Lee, the society’s founder, told her people. They happily followed the injunction, breeding livestock, cultivating medicinal herbs and seeds, weaving baskets, building furniture, canning produce. Everything they made was of the best quality, much in demand when Shaker peddlers took them to market.

Fortunately, many of their 19 “valleys of love and delight” have endured as museums. These are scattered widely across New England and the Midwest, except near the New York-Massachusetts border, about 150 miles north of New York City and 135 miles west of Boston. Early Shakers settled in an arc between Albany, N.Y., and Pittsfield, Mass., miraculously still unspoiled, rural and green. There, three venerable Shaker sites cluster: beautifully restored Hancock Shaker Village; the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, just west across the state line in New York; and the abandoned headquarters of the ministry at New Lebanon, N.Y., also known as Mount Lebanon.

In May I spent three days exploring this trio, tucked in one of the loveliest corners of New England. Besides showcasing the exquisite work of Shaker hands and telling their story, they speak eloquently of the impossible dream these people tried to realize.

Echoes of the past

Just east of the New York state line, Berkshire County, Mass., has long been a desirable getaway for well-heeled Bostonians and New Yorkers. They send their kids to summer camp and prep school here and rent cottages close to the music at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Lenox, Mass., and the art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. When they want sushi or CDs, they go to Great Barrington, Mass., a chicly reconstituted New England mercantile town with plenty of good places to stay.

When I went to the Berkshires, I was smitten by Chatham, N.Y., about 25 miles northwest, in slower, less gentrified Columbia County, N.Y. There, an influx of urbanites, which intensified after Sept. 11, has brought stylish restaurants and cafes to a countryside that still speaks of simple Shaker pleasures.

Every gift shop in the neighborhood sells Shaker-inspired oval boxes, linen dish towels and “Tree of Life” postcards. Seemingly every B&B, on hilltop or in hollow, alongside winding country roads, has Shaker peg rails, candle stands and woodwork painted in the teal blue and spring green Shaker palette. In antiques stores you might find old ladder-back chairs, waiting for sanding and varnish to recall their Shaker designers, who abjured decoration for its own sake but saw the smile of the creator in finely crafted, useful things.

I stayed for three nights at the Inn at Silver Maple Farm in the Berkshire foothills in East Chatham, N.Y. There, an old white barn has been handsomely transformed into a rambling inn with nine rooms, two suites and a high-ceilinged great room, where Ross and Nancy Audino serve breakfast. The inn, opened in 1996, looks fresh and new inside, with exposed beams and polished pine floors. But the Audinos, expatriate New Yorkers, just bought the place and are feeling their way into the bed-and-breakfast business. To it they bring undemanding friendliness and real New York bagels, imported from that premier emporium, H&H Bagels on New York City’s Upper West Side.

My room, at the rear of the main building, mixed shabby chic with the spartan Shaker style. It had a blue cupboard, bench, rag rug and divine four-poster queen-sized bed. There were modern conveniences, such as a phone, TV and private bath, to make it a comfortable nest.

The inn is on New York Route 295, lined with farms. When you drive on back roads like this one, there is little to break the bucolic spell. I missed my turnoff because it was so pleasant to keep driving, drinking in the scenery.

That’s how I discovered Chatham. I was headed to the Shaker Museum and Library, but instead of veering north on the old Albany Turnpike, I kept going on 295 until I found myself in the center of town, really just one long block of stores with a working pendulum clock tower that dates to the early 1870s on one end and an abandoned inn on the other, the oldest building in Chatham, dating from 1811.

Dignified brick storefronts on Main Street bespeak the town’s prominence as a late 19th century railroad hub, and you can see a first-run movie for $3.50 at the Crandell Theatre, owned and operated by the same family since the ‘50s. I bought a pair of clogs at Browns Emporium and a paperback mystery at the Chatham Bookstore: “A Simple Shaker Murder,” by Deborah Woodworth, featuring a bonneted Shaker sister as the novel’s unlikely gumshoe.

My route to the Shaker Museum and Library along the old road that linked Boston to Albany -- beautiful New York Columbia County Highway 13 and Shaker Museum Road -- is high on my list of classic New England drives. You know, with spotted cows, rolling hills, snowball bushes. But the flock of crossbred East Frisian sheep, 1,200 strong, nibbling in pastures across the road from the Shaker Museum and Library was a little unusual.

They belong to the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., the largest sheep dairy in the country, which sends high-grade cheese and yogurt to gourmet groceries. I got there before then-farm manager Ken Kleinpeter started milking. Annie and Mickie, Kleinpeter’s sheep-savvy border collies, were at his heels as he took me through the office, decorated with Shaker furniture, woodwork and quilts. Then he showed me the dairy’s authentic Shaker barn, moved to Old Chatham from Watervliet, N.Y., near Albany, the first home of the Shaker church in America. The two-level barn is a perfect simple gift, the color of dried cherries, with a made-by-hand look and no plaques or tour guides to distract from its beauty.

Across the road from the sheep farm is the Shaker Museum and Library, which houses a collection of 18,500 authentic Shaker artifacts in a U-shaped complex. It gives visitors the chance to inspect some of the sect’s most beautiful creations -- elegant drop-leaf tables, sewing desks, spinning wheels; buckets, baskets, oval boxes and brooms; here and there, a tape-backed chair, with a gracefulness derived from “the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it,” as Thomas Merton, an author and Trappist monk, wrote. Even such rudimentary Shaker tools as shovels and carding combs have a glow about them.

John S. Williams Sr., a local gentleman farmer who started the collection in the 1930s, had a special interest in Shaker machinery and technology, little-appreciated aspects of the Shaker lifestyle. Unlike the old-fashioned Amish people, Shakers embraced newfangled things that made work more efficient -- electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, automobiles. Then, too, the industrious and ingenious Shakers came up with their own inventions, many of which are displayed at the museum: an improved Shaker washing machine made in 1876, tapered ladders that could insert easily into the top branches of fruit trees at harvest time, chairs with buttons set into the base of each leg so people can tilt back in them.

Mother Ann, who died in 1784, would be flabbergasted to learn how valuable Shaker furniture and arts and crafts have become. The workers at Meissner’s know, because they auction antiques every Saturday night at their warehouse in New Lebanon, a hamlet about a 10-minute drive northeast of Old Chatham. Co-owner Dolores Meissner told me a Shaker chest of drawers that went for $400 in 1988 sold for $8,000 when it turned up again at the auction house a decade later.

I stopped by Meissner’s on my way to New Lebanon, off U.S. Route 20, near the Massachusetts border. The Shaker community, founded there in 1787 by one of Mother Ann’s successors, was a basket and chair production center and the home of church leaders who sent evangelists as far afield as Ohio and Kentucky to spread the word of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.

New Lebanon was the biggest village in the Shaker world, 6,000 acres, and their first true communal colony, where brothers and sisters lived apart from the world, according to the society’s singular rules. Converts signed a covenant, giving their worldly goods to the church, thereafter sharing labor and gain with fellow devotees. Their communal lifestyle, pacifism, celibacy and sexual egalitarianism made them enemies in more traditional religious circles, as did their worship services. Sometimes lasting more than 20 hours, these were marked by ecstatic whirling, hopping, marching and dancing. Detractors called members of the sect “shaking Quakers,” hence their name.

About 600 Shakers celebrated the Sabbath in a large white frame meetinghouse there, with an arched red roof and huge triple-sash windows, built in the early 1820s. Though the village closed in 1947, the meetinghouse remains as part of a private school named after a prominent early Shaker.

Along lovely, leafy Darrow Road, the school occupies a handful of original New Lebanon buildings. Alas, only the atmospheric ruin of their great stone barn remains, but the Shaker Museum and Library plans to resurrect it, then move to the historic New Lebanon site.

A clean, orderly life

Perhaps more than theology, practical matters guided the Shaker way of life. “Provide places for all your things, so that you may know where to find them at any time, day or night,” Mother Ann said. She also told her followers to live as if they knew they would die tomorrow and encouraged them to keep everything squeaky-clean because there was no dirt in heaven. That philosophy is nowhere more apparent than at Hancock, a restored Shaker village with many of its working parts in situ, including a stunning 1830 dwelling house (where Shaker brothers and sisters lived in separate quarters) of red Flemish Bond brick with green shutters and rows of shimmering windows and an unusual 1826 round stone barn. East of New Lebanon on Route 20, near the crest of the worn-down Berkshires, you can see Hancock in the distance, surrounded by orderly fields and woods, like a soft, faded quilt patch of heaven.

By 1958, only three elderly sisters remained there. (Even before the turn of the 20th century, the church attracted many more women than men.) So the Shaker central ministry, then located in Canterbury, N.H., sold the village to local preservationists, who ultimately gave us a place to better understand the Shakers.

In high tourist season, May to October, visitors can wander through 20 historic Shaker buildings at Hancock; make friends with heritage livestock breeds, such as Devon cattle, Merino sheep and Tamworth pigs; smell herbs listed in the 1873 Shaker “Druggists’ Handbook of Pure Botanic Preparations”; and watch costumed Shaker re-enactors bake ginger cakes and brown bread in the dwelling house kitchen.

The rest of the year, visitors must tour the village with a docent. But that’s no hardship. I’ve done it twice, with a tall fellow who showed my group how the Shakers danced and with a woman who led us in an a cappella rendition of “Simple Gifts.”

Wandering around Hancock, it is easy to romanticize the Shakers, forgetting that they lived in a tightly circumscribed world. Many of the orphans they adopted ran away from rigid Shaker villages; some sisters and brothers fell in love and went, guiltily, apostate; ugly rifts developed between colonies.

But when I stood before the dual doorways leading into the Hancock dwelling house -- left for men, right for women, pine floors of each glistening equally -- I thought we could all use a little Shaker yearning for heaven on Earth, hopeless though it may be.