The Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield is
located on a 1,200 acre site in the scenic Berkshire Hills,
western Massachusetts. Here on the third of 19 sites established
in the 18th century, the original life of the Shaker, America's
most successful communitarian society is still preserved as
a museum village. Hancock was home to members of the communal,
religious society from 1783 to 1960 when it became an outdoor
history museum. Today its buildings, collections and programs
interpret three centuries of Shaker life and work, with activities
aimed at visitors of all ages.
Who were the shakers?
The Shakers were an offshoot of the Quakers who abandoned
England and arrived in New England in 1774, led by the radical
and forward thinking Ann Lee. They took their name
from the way they would 'shake' after prayer, so deep was
their faith and the way it moved them. Their fundamental values
were communal living, separate from the rest of the world,
equality of the sexes and celibacy.
They were efficient farmers, businessmen and technicians,
considered seriously advanced for their time. Unlike other
pious groups, the Shakers didn't reject the encroachment of
technology. In fact, they were at the forefront of technical
development. For them work was a form of worship, if you could
improve your working you were improving your relationship
Their inventions include the round stone barn, a power
water system, circular saw, rotary harrow, threshing machine
and an automatic hay-seeding device. They were
able to use water for many things, like tunnelling it to do
laundry. Built in the eighteenth century, this harnessing
of power was very innovative for its time. Usually confined
to industrial areas, for a farm of Hancock's size to have
a turbine was virtually unheard of. Without the Shakers, the
face of modern agriculture could have been quite different.
The most famous of all the Shaker buildings in Hancock Village
is the Shaker Round Barn and it pretty much summarises
their work ethic. They tried to create systems that made everything
as efficient as possible which made their neighbours in farming
communities green with envy.
Like the Puritans who came here before them, the Shakers arrival
allowed them to live by their own code. Their main tenant
was of celibacy. Men and boys lived on one side girls
and women on the other, they didn't mix, they didn't mingle,
they didn't even marry. In fact, they were more like brothers
and sisters. However, if you broke this code, you would simply
be asked to leave the community. Obviously, this community
didn't breed like conventional society, and they were reliant
on people joining the cult from outside to sustain their ranks.
The flipside of this austerity was that you got to be a part
of a community of people, whose basis was love, was respect,
was nurture and harmony.
In the 19th century, shaker furniture was dismissed as an
ugly collection of sticks. Today, they are achieving huge
prices. Oprah Winfrey recently paid $230,000 for a small chest
and $30,000 for an oval box.