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Thursday, February 4


Many years ago, while exploring American highways, I stumbled on a Shaker heritage site that sparked my interest in the organization.  Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, are an offshoot sect of the Quakers, and are famous for their gender equality, communal and celibate lifestyle, and spare yet beautiful architecture and furniture design. While touring the grounds, I was taken with the immaculate interiors, demonstrations of baking and handicrafts by museum interpreters, and the "living farm" atmosphere created by gardens and livestock.

Last fall, when I took a trip to Pennsylvania, I detoured to visit another Shaker site: the Watervliet Shaker Community Historic Site near Albany. I was hoping to once again step back into the gracefully austere lifestyle of the Shakers, but instead, my visit left me depressed at the state of the place.

Watervliet is America's first Shaker settlement, established in 1776, with the movement's most famous founder, Mother Ann Lee, resting in their graveyard.  The site is unfortunately derelict and has only one building open to the public.  Although I appreciated the industry of the Christmas craft fair being held in this building, the goods on offer were out of step with this Shaker maxim:

Don't make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.

Watervliet has an illustrious history as the source of inventions such as flat brooms and vacuum-sealed cans. They also originated the packaged seed industry. At its peak in 1850, the community supported 230 of the 6,000 Shakers across the US, living almost entirely self sufficiently and producing goods for sale across the country.

I appreciate that funding issues can prevent restoration and that just the fact that the site still stands is impressive, considering the adjacent airport and the encroachment of Albany.  I was also there in the off-season and it seems that the The Shaker Heritage Society is making a valiant effort with educational outreach, virtual tours on their website and summer agricultural demonstrations. However, it will take a strong leader to sweep away the caution tape and reverse the effects of time's decay on this once-prosperous community.  Perhaps Mother Ann has rested long enough.

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