The world’s last three surviving Shakers don’t ask for much. Just a sign.
Not a voice from above or a thunderclap on a clear day or some other heavenly affirmation of their faith as they go about their tranquil life at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester.
No, sir. Their future hangs on signage: two small placards on the Maine Turnpike to remind the world the Shakers are still here and, like any other tourist attraction, welcome any and all visitors.
“We don’t typically try to evoke this sort of support. But in this matter, we absolutely feel that we need it,” said Michael Graham, director of the United Society of Shakers, as the birds tweeted a late-spring symphony outside the village administration building’s screened porch Tuesday morning.
By “this matter,” Graham means the Legislature’s recent passage of a bill that does away with the two brown “Shaker Village” signs on each side of the turnpike about eight miles away – part of a sweeping change triggered by the federal government’s insistence that Maine start adhering to the feds’ national sign standards or risk losing millions in highway funding.
In exchange, Shaker Village can jockey with other attractions for space on the blue “logo signs” designed to inform drivers while simultaneously reducing the visual clutter up and down Maine’s interstate highway system.
One problem: At $1,500 apiece, the logos would cost Shaker Village $3,000 a year – not just in the first year, but in perpetuity. And that’s an expense Graham’s employers – Sister Frances, Sister June and Brother Arnold – can ill afford.
“Over a 10-year period, that’s $30,000,” said Graham, who came to work at the village 20 years ago fresh out of Bates College. “That’s the replacement of a roof. That’s the stabilization of sills on one of our buildings.”
A little background:
Founded in 1747, the Shakers were an offshoot of a Quaker community in England who got their name from their rapturous behavior while worshiping. They came to the United States in 1774 and eventually established 18 communities from Florida to Maine.
At their peak, just before the Civil War, the Shakers numbered some 5,000 members – no easy feat, considering that procreation is forbidden among the faithful.
From there, predictably, the congregation steadily shrank through the 20th century, as did the number of active communities. All are gone now save the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, with its 1,800 acres, 17 buildings and, alas, only three surviving members: Sister Frances in her late 80s, Sister June in her mid-70s and Brother Arnold in his mid-50s.
Still, the tourists keep coming to the enclave of brick and white-clapboard buildings, just off Route 26 about 10 miles south of the oh-so-secular Oxford Casino. Drawn by the museum, the working farm, the library and the Shakers’ legacy of music, architecture and much-copied furniture, visitors number between 10,000 and 12,000 annually – although Graham reports even that tally has trended downward in recent years.
Which brings us back to those two signs.
“We would certainly be willing to pay for the creation and installation of those logo signs, which we feel are very important,” said Graham. “Where we become highly confused is why we have to continue to pay $3,000 every year to have those signs in place.”
Because, replied Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills in an interview Tuesday, that’s how much they currently cost.
“It’s an amortization of the total average cost of the sign – putting it up and keeping it up,” said Mills.
It’s also a moneymaker for Maine Interstate Logos, a subsidiary of Interstate Logos, which has contracts for those blue signs all over the United States.
According to Mills, the turnpike authority and the Maine Department of Transportation have long-term contracts with the company that run through early 2016 – at which point some, ahem, renegotiations might be in order.
(Consider: At six logos per blue sign and $1,500 per logo, each sign can rake in as much as $9,000 per year.)
Thursday evening, at Mills’ invitation, Graham will lead a contingent of Shaker Village supporters down to a regular meeting of the Maine Turnpike Authority’s board to plead for a little wiggle room to keep the Shakers’ name out there for all to see.
He’ll explain how adding a $3,000 expense to the village’s $280,000 annual operating budget means attracting 300 more people per year for $10 tours – tough enough to do these days even with the signs.
He’ll also explain that as a nonprofit organization (which, by the way, forgoes its property-tax exemption because the Shakers have always believed in paying their fair share), Shaker Village runs far more on faith than it does on fortune.
“This is a religious community, first and foremost, because there are still Shakers here. This is the place where they work and worship,” Graham said. “But this is also the place where they share their history and their culture – and there’s a great deal to share.”
Now for the good news.
According to Mills, the federal government is “very grateful that we’ve adopted a long-range (sign) policy that comports with their guidelines and they’re willing to be patient, as we are.”
Meaning the brown signs will stay put, Mills said, until the authority either negotiates a new contract with Maine Interstate Logos or, perhaps, starts doing its own signage.
As for cutting the Shakers a break, Mills said that would be up to his seven-member board. Still, he added, a “special policy” for nonprofits might be worth considering.
That would be nothing short of a gift from on high for the Shakers, who want only to live out their years on their last remaining outpost and, even after they’re long gone, keep the memory alive.
“You’re tugging at my heart!” protested Mills.
It must be a sign.