Photo by Brianna Soukup

Brother Arnold Hadd coaxes the sheep out of the way during his morning chores at Shaker Village on June 3. At 70 sheep, it is the largest flock the Shakers have had in many years.

 

The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village looks like a painting in the early morning light, its neat row of white buildings dappled with sun and backed by a rolling green pasture dotted with sheep. Soon, gardeners will arrive to work alongside the Shakers and the hum of daily life will fill the idyllic hillside village.

The silence is broken only by bird song and the whoosh of traffic in the distance. Tom, the resident cat, lounges on the back steps of the dwelling house, lazily watching the birds. He’d already killed a chipmunk this morning, Brother Arnold Hadd says as he steps out of the kitchen, a can of cat food in hand.

Brother Arnold walks briskly toward the barn, his black work boots slapping the dirt driveway as he chats breezily with Michael Graham, the director of the Shaker Museum and Library and a friend of the Shakers for three decades. Their familiar banter centers on who works the hardest during morning barn chores, which these days revolve around the largest flock of sheep the Shakers have had in years. There are 70 now; 22 were born last spring, thanks to a ram that was thought to be fully castrated but was not. Others found refuge on the farm when their owners could no longer keep them but didn’t want to send them to the slaughterhouse.

“Children!” Brother Arnold calls out to the sheep lingering near the pasture fence. He knows each by name.

As he moves quickly around the lower level of the barn cleaning stalls and filling troughs, Brother Arnold tells stories of the history of the barn, this village and the people who have found a home here over the last two centuries.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

A new slate roof is put on the dwelling house by workers at Shaker Village. The project was one of a few renovations that needed to be done immediately.

 

Brother Arnold, who is 64 and speaks publicly on behalf of the Shakers, lives at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester with Sister June Carpenter, a librarian who became a Shaker at age 50 in the late 1980s, and Brother Andrew, who is 28 and joined several years ago. They are the only living Shakers in the only active Shaker community in the world.

But they don’t dwell on those numbers. They believe there will be more Shakers, that if they live faithful and true to what they have professed, there will always be people who will join.

“Will it be a large community? Nay. But there will always be a sustainable community at Sabbathday Lake,” Brother Arnold says. “The uniqueness of Shakerism is it’s always been able to evolve, to progress and to adapt to the situations that are at hand.”

The Shakers have been working to develop a comprehensive plan for their community that they believe will create a sustainable model for its future, preserve buildings and the largest collection of Shaker items in the world and expand their social missions. They hope it will also connect the larger community to the village, the history and the traditions of the Shakers who have lived at Sabbathday Lake for more than 230 years.

Photo courtesy of the United Society of Shakers

The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in an old photograph taken around the year 1900.

 

The $30 million long-range plan includes renovating and constructing buildings for an herb house, research museum, farm-to-table market and café and a welcome center, and to expand nature trails and a wildlife refuge on the 1,800-acre property in New Gloucester and Poland. They’re at the beginning of the first phase of the plan, with a goal of raising $12 million for the herb house, market-café and trails.

The plan is being put into motion now, but the vision for it dates back to the early 1970s when Brother Theodore Johnson and Sister Mildred Barker were the leaders of the community. Brother Ted, a scholar with an insatiable interest in history who helped revive the Shaker herb industry, was passionate about preserving the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village and wanted to bring the original herb house “back to its glory,” Brother Arnold said.

Brother Ted died unexpectedly in 1986 at age 55 and the Shakers, reeling from the loss, focused their attention on their struggling finances and caring for aging sisters. Brother Arnold is now the only Shaker from that era and carries with him an understanding of Brother Ted’s vision, Graham said. The time has come to see it to completion.

“Not only is this not the end, it’s the beginning of a new beginning,” he said. “This is a 21st century Shaker story.”

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Michael Graham, the director of the Shaker Museum and Library, in one of the herb house storage rooms on June 3. Graham has been a friend of the Shakers for over three decades.

 

‘ONE OF THE BIGGEST MYSTERIES IN MAINE’

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – more commonly known as the Shakers for the ecstatic bodily agitation that was once part of worship – was founded in Manchester, England, in 1747. It was brought to the U.S. in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee, who received a revelation directing her to establish a Shaker church in America. Two years later, a small band of believers cleared land at Niskayuna, outside Albany, New York, and began community life together.

As the number of Shakers grew, 18 communities were established in New England, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and Florida. The community reached its highest number of members, 5,000, in the decade leading up to the Civil War.

Shakers practice communal living where all property is shared. They are pacifists who live a celibate life in imitation of Christ and practice social, economic and spiritual equality for all members. Worship and work are deeply entwined.

Sometimes confused with the Amish or Quakers, the Shakers never rejected the outside world or technology. They composed more than 10,000 songs and invited friends to worship with them. They were prolific innovators credited with inventing the circular saw, clothespins, flat brooms, paper packets for seeds and numerous other tools. Their furniture is revered for its simplicity and high quality.

The Shakers’ history at Sabbathday Lake dates to 1783, when a group of Shaker missionaries from Alfred came to what was then called Thompson’s Pond Plantation. Within a year, nearly 200 people were living in the buildings that had previously been home to five families. Eleven years later, those living there made an oral covenant to each other to consecrate their all to God and formally organize as a community.

Their first act as a community was to build the meetinghouse for public worship. They went on to build a communal dwelling house and, over the next decade, added barns and mills. A garage was built when the Shakers bought the first car in town; they painted the new building yellow with leftover paint from the Poland Spring Hotel. The community now includes more than a dozen buildings.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Mother Ann Lee’s gravestone upstairs in the old herb house. Mother Ann Lee brought The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as Shakers, to the United States in 1774. When this original marker became worn it was replaced by a newer one, then shipped to Maine in the 1960s, at Sister Mildred’s request.

 

In 1931, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers opened a museum and library that became a roadside attraction for vacationers traveling along Route 26, which at one time ran through the village. As public interest in the Shakers grew in the 1960s, Brother Ted helped elevate the attraction by turning it into a historical institution for learning, with the museum expanding into unused buildings.

The village received National Historic Landmark status in the 1970s and, in 1972, the museum and research library were organized as a nonprofit. Today, the nonprofit’s programs include the museum and library, the preservation and maintenance of buildings, tours for the public, and the cultivation and sale of herbs in the tradition of the early Shaker herb industry.

The Shakers maintain a tree farm, vegetable and herb gardens, hay fields, pastures, the flock of sheep and several Highland cattle. The apple orchard, which has been there since the late 1780s, includes some 19,000 trees on 20 acres. It became a commercial orchard in the 1850s and has been leased out since the 1950s.

The Sabbathday Lake Shakers were referred to as the “least of Mother’s children in the east,” always the numerically smallest and poorest of the Shakers. But this was the community that hung on through years of declining membership and financial struggles as other communities closed.

In recent decades, the Shaker village has been open during the summer for tours. The Shakers hosted workshops, fairs, concerts and other events that became popular and beloved by visitors. But tourism had been declining about 10 percent each year even before the pandemic, which forced the closure of the village to visitors last summer. It is closed again this year.

In 2019, about 15,000 visitors came to the village, but only 3,700 took a paid tour. Graham said the hope is the comprehensive plan will create new gateways to “get more people through the dooryard.”

“We want a deeper relationship with the people of Maine and to rely less on tourism,” he said.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Evelyn Lennon of Bridgton, right, and Amy Dudley of Topsham pick lavender at Shaker Village on June 16. The two women are both volunteers who have become friends since meeting here.

 

Graham believes the changes will allow many more people to discover the Shaker culture, to learn about Shakerism and the history of  Sabbathday Lake from the Shakers themselves, and to dispel misconceptions, including that they live in an insular community removed from the world.

“There’s a lot of activity around this place. For the people who discover it, they love it,” Graham said. “For so many others, it’s one of the biggest mysteries in Maine.”

‘IT’S LIKE MAGIC’

Jamie Ribisi-Braley first took a tour at Sabbathday Lake with her husband 12 years ago. Immediately drawn to the people and the place, she started volunteering and eventually became president of Friends of the Shakers, a nonprofit group founded in 1974.

While visits from tourists have declined, the community of friends and supporters of the Shakers has grown. So, too, have programs that bring interns and volunteers to Sabbathday Lake to work with the Shakers and staff.

In the last few years, Friends of the Shakers has seen its membership grow 10 to 15 percent annually. There are now 630 households with active memberships. Each August, many of them travel to Sabbathday Lake for a weekend to volunteer and visit.

“It’s like magic. Everyone who comes here to support the place wants to have that Shaker moment and live those hours with the Shaker ideals,” Ribisi-Braley said. “We work with the Shaker motto of ‘Hands to work, hearts to God.’ The love is palpable. No matter whether you’re picking rocks in the gardens, sweeping a dusty barn or stripping herbs, it’s such a joyful experience.”

During the pandemic, when volunteer weekends were not an option, both the Shakers and the Friends found new ways to connect. Ribisi-Braley, who also works at the village as the office manager, helped shift programs online. Brother Arnold set up his computer in the music room for Zoom meetings and recorded sermons to post online weekly. A few months ago, 2,000 people watched live on Facebook as the sheep were sheared.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Brother Arnold does morning chores at Shaker Village.

 

Last August, the Friends of the Shakers held their annual weekend together online. Brother Arnold said the event was special because it allowed the Shakers to visit with longtime friends who had been unable for years to travel to Maine.

Both this year and last, local supporters have visited farmers markets to buy dried herbs, teas, soap made by Brother Andrew and spaghetti sauce made by Brother Arnold. Allie Armstrong, an herbalist who works in the gardens and helps at the markets, says people often tell her how much they’ve missed visiting the village.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, collaborative programs with Creative Trails and the Margaret Murphy Centers for Children had been on hold. The programs have helped forge deep and meaningful connections between the Shakers and the community while creating opportunities for adults and teens with disabilities to experience various aspects of the village. The programs are starting to resume as more people are vaccinated and the threat from the virus recedes.

For more than five years, teenagers with autism from the Margaret Murphy Centers for Children have been coming to the Shaker village to work in the herb department. Eric Rohrbach, the transition coordinator for the centers, lives near the Shakers and reached out to see if they’d allow high school students from the program to volunteer.

The students, who are learning skills that hopefully lead to meaningful employment after graduation, work closely with the staff in the herb department to use digital scales and weigh and package herbs. They enjoy the people, the work and the setting, which is quiet and overlooks the pastures, Rohrbach said.

“It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s the best environment for the kids we work with,” he said. “It really adds to the sense of community between the school and the Shakers.”

‘A SENSE OF TOGETHERNESS’

The scent of lavender spreads through the village, carried on a light breeze, as Fiona Cohen, Caleb Ireland and Sophie Nahirny crouch in the garden bed. They harvest lavender by the handful, securing each bundle with a rubber band and dropping it into a large basket.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Allie Armstrong, a part-time herbalist at Shaker Village, talks with Brother Arnold about the drip irrigation she and two Bates interns, Fiona Cohen and Caleb Ireland, were installing.

 

The three interns from Bates College are working at Shaker Village this summer. Their work is primarily in the garden, but they also hope to help with trails and other projects to connect others to the land and the village, which are under historic and conservation easements.

In the first weeks of their internship, the Bates students cleared garden beds, planted herbs, harvested lavender and helped install a drip irrigation system. Brother Arnold gave them each a nickname. Before this opportunity, Ireland said he was only familiar with the Shakers through the song “Simple Gifts,” written and composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett from the Alfred Shaker Village, which closed in 1931.

“It’s such an interesting history, and it’s one I had no idea about,” said Cohen, who is from northern New Jersey. “The more time I spend at Shaker Village talking to the Shakers and the people who work here, the more fascinated I’ve become. I think it’s important for Mainers to know the history of the land and what happened here.”

The Shakers started producing herbs for sale in 1799, becoming pioneers of the production of medicinal herbs in the United States. The business exploded in the 1830s when plants were used as restorative therapy for ailments ranging from fever to pleurisy. The herbs were dried in attics of herb houses, then packaged in tin canisters or paper-wrapped bricks. With their seed packet business already thriving, the Shakers sent herbs to customers along the same routes.

In the late 1800s, as membership decreased, the Shakers were edged out of the business. But in the late 1960s came the back-to-the-Earth movement and Brother Ted helped revive the traditional herb business. The focus back then was mainly on medicinal herbs, but switched to mostly culinary herbs in the ’80s as more people took an interest in cooking, Brother Arnold said.

Today, 80 percent of the Shaker herb business is culinary herbs. The herbs grown, dried and packaged at Sabbathday Lake are sold online, at farmers markets, in stores and at Shaker museums in other states. Their top product is rosewater, an essential ingredient in Iranian cooking that has also become popular for cosmetic uses.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Lavender sits in the garden shed before being taken to the herb house at Shaker Village.

 

The production facility for the herb department is in the Sisters’ Shop, a building once used for laundry. The uninsulated attic, lined with unfinished pine sheathing, is ideal for drying herbs, said Graham, the museum and library director. A wood stove keeps the air warm as oregano and sage dry flat on racks stacked around the chimney column. Bundles of herbs hang from an old wooden laundry rack to dry.

In a large room on the floor below, dried herbs are stored in barrels. The walls are lined with shelves stacked with tins of herbs, the packaging similar to the style used by Shakers generations ago.

“This is our tradition,” Graham said. “This is what works.”

Before herb production shifted to this building in the 1960s, earlier Shakers used the attic of a larger building to dry herbs. That building, the only surviving Shaker herb house in the country and the fourth oldest building at Sabbathday Lake, is now in disrepair. Hay is sometimes stored on the ground level. The upper floors are crowded with old wood stoves, pieces of Shaker chairs sent when another community closed and various other items that have been set aside for now. In the attic, years-old herbs leftover from wreath-making sit on drying racks.

Graham stands in the middle of an upper floor, surrounded by dusty furniture, as he describes how the space will be transformed into a more modern facility that honors the Shaker tradition. The project, currently estimated at $4 million, will involve lifting the building from its granite footings to build a new foundation underneath. Work could start as soon as later this year.

When the project is done, nearly all of the 8,000-square-foot building will be open the public. People might start their visit in a downstairs gathering area to learn about the history of the herbs or attend a workshop. Schoolchildren on field trips to the village would spend time in a learning lab, where they might plant seeds. A small museum gallery in a space historically used to sort apples will highlight Shaker agricultural history.

Because food safety rules won’t allow visitors unrestricted access to the drying attic, glass panels will be installed so guests can look up into the space. In a commercial kitchen in a new ground level of the building, Shakers and staff could hold workshops or provide incubator space for small culinary businesses. When gardeners are stripping herbs in the packing room with a sweeping view of the hilly pasture, visitors may be invited to sit and help.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

The old herb drying attic, no longer in use, is in the only surviving Shaker herb house in the country. It is the fourth oldest building at Sabbathday Lake, and is in disrepair. When the massive planned renovation is finished, nearly all of the building would be open to the public.

 

“I really want people to feel a sense of togetherness,” Graham said.

Graham said the restoration of the building will allow the herb business to expand fourfold, possibly producing a cash flow of $270,000 per year. It will also allow the Shakers to expand their relationships with organizations like the Margaret Murphy Centers for Children.

Armstrong, the herbalist, first came to Sabbathday Lake on a field trip in fifth grade to visit the orchard and gardens. She is excited about the herb house restoration and the opportunities that come with it, including allowing more people to experience the Shaker village and learn about herbs.

“There is so much history and historical knowledge living here and that will live on with the herb house,” she said.

BRINGING HISTORY HOME

For decades, a bronze bell at the Watervliet Shaker Community in Watervliet, New York, tolled throughout the day to call Shaker brothers and sisters to rise, worship and eat. But, like all Shaker communities except Sabbathday Lake, the number of people living there grew smaller and the community closed.

The tolling of the bell was the last sound the last Shaker sisters from Watervliet heard as they drove away to their new home in 1938.

Eighty-three years later, on a sunny late spring morning in Maine, Brother Arnold saw the bell for the first time. Newly acquired at auction and shipped to Sabbathday Lake braced in wood and wrapped in plastic, the bell had finally come again to the Shakers.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Brother Arnold, left, and Michael Graham next to the bronze bell from the Watervliet Shaker Village.

 

“There it is,” Brother Arnold said as he pulled away the plastic wrapping to reveal the bronze bell. “We could put this up and use it right now.”

The 22-inch bronze bell was cast in 1848 by Meneely foundry for the Watervliet Shaker Community. After the community closed, it continued to hang in the bell house until it was removed decades later because it was a liability. The bell was purchased at auction for $4,000, and Brother Arnold now would like to find a place in the village where it will again be rung.

“We don’t want it just sitting in our collection,” he said. “We want people to know it’s here.”

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Brother Arnold unwraps the bronze bell from the Watervliet Shaker Community in Watervliet, New York. The bell was cast in 1848 by Meneely foundry for the Watervliet Shakers.

 

Brother Arnold has been working closely with Graham to identify and acquire Shaker items to add to the collection. It is at times an expensive and difficult undertaking as they bid against private collectors. For Brother Arnold, the most exciting item to come home to the Shakers recently is a snuff box that belonged to Father Joseph Meacham, who called the church to be gathered into order and live a common life together.

“When it has such a rarity and such a significance, I feel it’s really important that they be here. What’s wonderful about the collection here is it is built entirely and curated entirely by the Shakers themselves,” Graham said. “So few cultures have the opportunity to create their own interpretation. That’s usually done about people by others. That’s a really unique thing about this place.”

But right now, only 15 percent of the Shaker museum collection is on view.  It is the only collection in the world curated by Shakers about their own history, but until a larger museum is built, most of it remains tucked away in storage. The research museum – the largest building and biggest undertaking in the long-range plan – would provide a place to not only display more of the collection, but properly store and preserve it in a climate-controlled environment.

Shaker history would also be highlighted in a welcome center that would be built on what was once the site of a trustees office, historically the spot where Shakers would meet with people from outside the community. The year-round center would include a shop with Maine-made crafts and a small theater in the basement to show a documentary about Shaker history told in their own voices.

Photo by Brianna Soukup

A room where Shakers store their baskets for harvesting at Shaker Village.

 

As Graham walks through the village, he can easily envision what it will look like when all these projects are done. There will come a time, he hopes, where people will come and spend an entire day here. Folks could take a tour, visit the herb garden and talk to the gardeners, eat at the café, take a hike and spend time in the herb house, he said.

“This is how Shaker culture is still being lived, experienced and taught. You realize you are walking in history. You will remember the way you felt when you laugh with Brother Arnold or watch him work. We want people to come and have a relationship with this place,” Graham said. “And if there should come a time when there are no Shakers, that spirit will be alive in our programs and our businesses and our social mission.”


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