advertisement

The serenity of the setting, among low hills and meadows, and the carefully considered placement of the buildings and their relationships with each other, are the essence of Shaker philosophy, "Order is Heaven's law." Twenty restored buildings make up the village, which explores the religious practices and lifestyle habits of the austere Protestant sect. Its signature structure is the 1826 round stone barn: The Shaker preoccupation with functionalism joined with purity of line and respect for materials has never been clearer than it is in the design of this building. Its round shape expedited the chores of feeding and milking livestock by arranging cows in a circle, and the precise joinery of the roof beams and support pillars is a joy to observe.

The second must-see is the brick dwelling that contained the village's communal dining room, kitchens, and sleeping quarters. Sexes were separated at meals, work, and religious services, and there are staircases leading to male and female "retiring rooms."

While artisans and docents demonstrate Shaker crafts and techniques, only some dress in period clothing to portray Shaker inhabitants. All are knowledgeable about their subject, though, and dispense nuggets about the Shaker discipline such as the requirement to dress the right side first and to step with the right foot first. Special programs include sustainable gardening workshops and guided hikes to the Shakers' spiritual retreat on Mount Sinai.

Movers & Shakers in Massachusetts -- The former Ann Lee, once imprisoned in England for her excess of religious zeal, arrived in New York with eight disciples in 1774, just as the disgruntled American colonies were about to burst into open rebellion. She had anointed herself leader of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming and was known as Mother Ann. The austere Protestant sect was dedicated to simplicity, equality, and celibacy. They were popularly known as "the Shakers" for their spastic movements when in the throes of religious ecstasy.

By the time Mother Ann died in 1784, the Shakers had many converts, who then fanned out across the country to form communal settlements from Maine to Indiana. One of the most important Shaker communities, Hancock, edged the Massachusetts-New York border, near Pittsfield.

Shaker society produced dedicated, highly disciplined farmers and craftspeople whose products were much in demand in the outside world. They sold seeds, invented early agricultural machinery and hand tools, and erected large buildings of several stories and exquisite simplicity. Their spare, clean-lined furniture and accessories anticipated the so-called Danish Modern style by a century and in recent years have drawn astonishingly high prices at auction.

All of these accomplishments required a verve owed at least in part to sublimation of sexual energy, for a fundamental Shaker tenet was total celibacy for its adherents. The society grew through converts and adoption of orphans (who were free to leave, if they wished). But by the 1970s, the movement had a bare handful of believers. The string of Shaker settlements and museums that remain testify to their dictum, "Hands to work, hearts to God."

The museum shop is excellent, and a cafe serves lunches in summer and fall, with some dishes based on Shaker recipes.