June 17, 2013

Shakers' history alive and well

Two men work diligently to bring awareness of the Sabbathday Lake village, founded in 1783, to new generations of people.

By Deborah Sayer dsayer@pressherald.com
News Assistant

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.

click image to enlarge

New York City students try gardening during a recent visit to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester. The students lodged at the village and participated in prayers and chores on the farm. They also took field trips to other attractions in the area.

Photo courtesy Leonard Brooks

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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