Much of the focus of the Maine museum world will be on Rockland this summer, where the Farnsworth Art Museum has just opened an exhibition that tells the story of Shaker religious, social and economic foundations through Shaker-made objects and artifacts.
The Farnsworth expects big crowds for “The Shakers: From Mount Lebanon to the World.” It’s one of the largest shows the museum has hosted and could garner national attention. The Shaker culture remains intriguing to many people in the United States and across the globe, especially those who admire the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle and the Shakers’ focus on community and ritual.
Most of the material, on view in four galleries, is drawn from the collection of the Shaker Museum in New Lebanon, New York. That collection is among the largest and most diverse collections of Shaker material anywhere, and includes many examples of classic Shaker furniture, which is noted for its clean lines, efficient function and elegant form.
This seems to be the Summer of the Shakers in Maine, with two other smaller museums, in New Gloucester and Alfred, joining the Farnsworth in offering folks the chance to explore a culture that’s nearly gone.
“We’re going to give people a sense of who the Shakers were and what their lives were about and the things they created to sustain those lives spiritually and physically,” said Farnsworth chief curator Michael Komanecky. “This show is as much about what they created as who they were.”
While the Farnsworth show focuses on objects made in the Shaker capital of New York, one of the galleries will include material from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, just outside Portland.
THREE LIVING MEMBERS
Sabbathday Lake is the only Shaker community still active, with three living members, a tree farm, orchard, gardens, hay fields, pastures, livestock and a small capacity to manufacture goods, such as baskets and small woodenware.
All the other communities have died.
The Shakers are a religious sect that branched off from the Quakers. Their roots go back to Colonial America. In addition to their celibacy, they are known for a communal agrarian lifestyle that is efficient and productive.
Maine’s rich Shaker history will be on full view this summer.
For visitors, the obvious place to start to learn that history is Sabbathday Lake, which has its own museum and offers guided tours of its 18-building village.
It draws between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors annually, including many from “far, far away,” said museum director Michael Graham. “We have a lot of national and international travelers, who have heard about this place and consider it a must-see stop in the Northeast,”
On the other hand, he hears from Mainers who tell him they drive past Shaker Village in New Gloucester time and again but never stop to see what’s there.
“That’s a serious statement that we need to address,” Graham said. “This is the only place in the world where there are still Shakers. There is an unbroken tradition of Shaker culture here, and that is something that people should witness and learn from while it’s still here.”
The museum hosts the largest collection of Maine Shaker culture, with 13,000 artifacts that range from furniture and tools to medicinal and herbal products.
This summer, Sabbathday Lake has begun a series of mini-festivals to highlight Shaker culture and activities at the village. The Portland String Quartet will host the ninth season of its Maine Festival of American Music with a focus on “Its Roots and Traditions,” June 25-28 in the 1794 Meeting House.
During the day on June 28, the village will have craft demonstrations and nature hikes among the century-old trails that wind through 1,000 acres, among other activities. The village will host similar events throughout the summer in hopes of giving people incentive to visit, Graham said.
COMMUNITIES MERGED IN 1931
The other Shaker site is the Alfred Shaker Museum in the York County town of Alfred. It’s a small museum, with one room of displays in a carriage house that was part of the Alfred Shaker community, which was settled in the late 1700s and merged with the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in 1931.
There’s not much left of the Shaker community in Alfred, and many residents are not aware that Shakerism is part of the town’s heritage, said Barbara Carlson, president of the Friends of the Alfred Shaker Museum.
She understands why. There has been little attention paid to the Shaker history in Alfred. It wasn’t until after she bought a house near the museum that she began to learn the history.
Her story is not unique.
“When people who live in town come to visit, they say, ‘I didn’t know you were here,’” she said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, world, here we are.’”
This spring, the friends group made a movie about the Shaker history in Alfred on view at the museum. The moview was screened at a regional film festival and distributed to York County schools.
The Alfred carriage house was built in the late 1800s. It was one of 60 buildings in a community of about 200 members.
When the community merged with Sabbathday Lake, many of the buildings were sold and moved. Eight remain. The carriage house was moved to its current location in 2005, from its original site about 200 yards away.
Since 2005, the friends group has improved the building and grounds. It now includes one room of displays and a community meeting room. Volunteers are working to finish an upstairs reading room and office.
Maine’s Shaker roots are in Alfred, said Mary Lee Dunn Maguire, a member of the friends board. It was one of the earliest communities and boasted several nationally prominent Shakers. Among them was elder Joseph Brackett, who wrote the song “Simple Gifts,” which composer Aaron Copland made famous in “Appalachian Spring.”
The community thrived for 150 years, making spinning wheels, for which the Alfred Shakers were best known. They also made furniture and sold seeds. The small display inside the carriage house conveys that history, with examples of work from the Alfred Shakers as well as that of other Shakers. One of the more interesting items on view is a bone crusher, a hand-crank machine that was used to crush the bones of dead animals.
TRADITIONS WILL LIVE ON
The community faded as its members aged. When it merged with Sabbathday Lake in 1931, the Alfred group included two men and 19 women. The men were elderly, and died soon after moving to Sabbathday Lake. The Alfred Shaker community was in poor financial health, and moving from Alfred to New Gloucester was the best way to ensure the safety and welfare of the surviving members, Carlson said.
Not only that, the move helped Sabbathday Lake, with an infusion of members. Many of the women were young, and helped the community survive into the 21st century.
They sold the land to the Brothers of Christian Instruction, which owns it today. The brothers have been supportive of the friends group in their efforts to establish, maintain and improve the museum, Carlson said.
The Alfred museum is small and growing slowly. Before its move to the current location, it was open only for special occasions. After the move, the friends have opened it to the public two days a week. It draws about 1,000 visitors a year, apart from its annual fall Apple Fest, which sometimes brings in 1,500 people or more.
The Alfred Shaker Museum also is using music to bring people together.
On July 19, it will host the Simple Gifts Music Festival, which will feature a public play-along of tunes from the Mark O’Connor String Method, as well as several versions of Brackett’s elegant hymn, performed and interpreted as a solo work, as an historical narrative and as a choral work.
Given the country’s long fascination with Shakerism and the summer spotlight on Shakerism in Maine, there is great hope for the future, Carlson added.
“I think this could be a very fine small museum, especially given its importance to the Shaker history in the country,” she said. “It should be a valuable asset to Shaker history.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: