NEW GLOUCESTER – A Route 26 bypass, constructed in 2007, successfully restored some tranquility to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village by diverting nearly 15,000 vehicles per day away from the 1,700-acre property.
Today, the cluster of 17 historic homesteads in the village no longer rattles with the passing of tractor-trailer trucks.
But could seclusion for this waning historic community signal the end for the Shaker way of life?
Not if longtime Shaker village director Leonard Brooks and curator Michael Graham have a say in the matter.
Both men have worked tirelessly to bring awareness about the Shaker faith to new generations of people.
Brooks came to the work as a high school history teacher who used to incorporate Shaker studies in his classroom. He has served as director of the Shaker Museum and Shaker Library at Sabbathday Lake since 1988.
Graham began his work at the village as a Bates College student doing a cultural research project on the Shakers in the early 1990s. That work led to his volunteering at the village almost every weekend through college.
Though he was a biochemistry major, Graham had always been fascinated with all aspects of Shaker life and, as a child, he used to collect “Shaker smalls” (creations such as handmade boxes) using money he earned mowing lawns.
Upon graduating, Graham was offered a one-year position as curator at the Shaker village.
He took the job and has been there ever since.
Brooks and Graham have worked diligently over the past few years to head a grass-roots campaign to reacquaint the world with this active community of Shakers, founded in 1783, whose village also is a National Historic Landmark.
Each week, from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, the village offers programs and activities intended to educate others about the history of the Shakers and their unique place in Maine history.
Plans are under way to install an additional archive module to house the museum’s growing collection of historic artifacts.
And, Graham is working on a cooperative exhibit detailing Shaker life in conjunction with the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.
According to Brooks, the Shaker church was founded in England in the 1740s and moved to America in 1764.
“There once were three separate Shaker communities in Maine — in Gorham, Alfred and at Sabbathday Lake, which is part of New Gloucester,” Brooks said. “The Shaker village at Gorham had a very short history, from 1808 to 1819. The Alfred community was active from 1782 to 1931 before merging with Sabbathday Lake to conserve their resources.”
Just 17 of the original 60 structures remain and are set up to interpret various periods of Shaker history.
One of the homesteads serves as guest quarters for visitors who come to participate in the programs and retreats offered on the premises that serve to provide needed respite and an opportunity to learn about Shaker traditions.
Last weekend, a group of schoolchildren from New York lodged there, taking meals with the Shakers, participating in prayers and chores around the farm and taking field trips to other local destinations.
The Sabbathday Lake village is part of “The Gems of 26” — seven tourist attractions founded along Route 26 that include the Maine Wildlife Park, Poland Spring Preservation Park and properties and the McLaughlin Garden and Historic Homestead.
Brooks believes that people are drawn to the Shaker lifestyle for its straightforward expression of early Christian life and the solace found in its simplicity.
“Brother Ted used to say the word simplicity means ‘without folds,’ which basically means living life openly and being honest about your life and faith,” Brooks said. “A lot of people are attracted to that concept.”
A celibate community, comprised of adult converts, the number of Shakers has dwindled over the years to just three remaining members in Maine.
The leader of the group is Sister Frances, now in her mid-80s, who came to the community as a 10-year-old orphan from Lewiston.
While Brooks and Graham oversee the running of the historic aspects of the Shaker Library and Shaker Museum, they report to Sister Frances and Elder Arnold, who oversee the overall spiritual, physical and financial welfare of the community.
Brooks said, “There are two entities at work here: the Shaker Society is a church that exists to educate others about what Shakers call the ‘Christ life’ and the museum and library are nonprofit corporations that educate people about Shaker traditions and history but are not involved in religious decisions.”
At 10 a.m. each Sunday, the Shakers invite the public to join them for worship services that are centered around testimonials, punctuated by Shaker-penned hymns that correspond to the particulars of a person’s story.
“One of the most beautiful aspects of meetings are the songs offered up as an accompaniment or complement to the individual testimonies being offered during services,” said Brooks. The Shakers have composed thousands of songs during their history, including the song “Simple Gifts” written by Maine elder Joseph Brackett (around 1948 in Alfred).
The village is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, offering six guided tours daily.
A Shaker store and gift shop sells items such as homemade herbal oils, vinegars, soaps and yarn made from the sheep raised there. Books, quilts and other items made by local artisans are sold in the museum shop.
Brooks will retire at the end of this month, passing the director’s baton to Graham, who also will continue to serve as curator.
Graham said Brooks, who will transition to a part-time role as coordinator of the Shaker retreat center, has done a fine job of laying the groundwork to build on.
“(Brooks) has provided Sabbathday Lake with a great deal of stability through a very carefully designed, forward-thinking plan of attainable goals that allows us to continue moving forward with the preservation of the buildings, increase the museum and library collections and expansion of our educational programs,” Graham said. “He has a personal passion for Shaker heritage, is part of the Shaker family and brings an entirely different perspective to his job, his goals and objectives. He has really given this his all.”
Brooks remains hopeful for the future of the village, saying “(Graham) is a kindred spirit with the Shakers. And that’s how a good job begins. To discover the Shaker history, you must begin with a knowledge of their religious life, which is the core of their history.”
Brooks said he is not concerned that the Shakers are destined for extinction, noting that after 250 years of history in Maine there is always something new to discover about them.
“They work and labor so that there will always be members here as a profession of faith to honor the trust, as they see it, that is in the Shaker church,” said Brooks. “I follow their lead. As long as they remain hopeful, I will too.”
Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: