Hudson Valley Museums and Historic Sites: Shaker Museum and Library in Mount Lebanon, Columbia County, NY

The Shakers made Mount Lebanon the center of their spiritual world



Ask most people about the Shakers, and they’ll mention two things: furniture, and that lovely hymn, “Simple Gifts.” Beyond that? Well, they were celibate, a fatal design flaw that explains why they aren’t around any more, right? Yes. What else?

Stumped? Well, there is quite a lot else, actually. “I offer this challenge to people,” says Jerry V. Grant, director of research and library services at the Shaker Museum and Library in Mount Lebanon, Columbia County. “I rarely have anyone come to the museum that I can’t connect the Shakers to an interest of theirs. This was a fully functioning society that did everything a society does. So food, diet, agriculture, health care, dress, the arts — there is something here to learn about. There are a variety of ways to access the Shakers, and if you spend any time with them, they become relevant.”

The Shakers were more than relevant in Columbia County in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, Mount Lebanon was to the Shakers what Salt Lake City is to the Mormons. This village, the first fully formed Shaker community in America, was home to the Central Ministry and governing community for the entire Shaker movement from 1787 to 1947.

brethren's workshop buildingAbove, an early photo of the 1829 Brethren’s Workshop building, part of the North Family campus at Mount Lebanon; below, women and children work in the drying and ironing room in the North Family wash house, circa 1890

north family wash house

Mother Ann Lee led the Shakers — formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing — from England and settled near Albany, in what is now the town of Colonie, in 1774. In England, they had been known as the “Shaking Quakers,” for their ecstatic church ceremonies, and the shortened name followed them here. After Lee’s death in 1784, leadership fell into the hands of Father James Whittaker. “By then, the Society, which held revivals out in ‘the frontier’ to gain new members, had many converts in the Mount Lebanon area who owned land,” says Grant. “They donated or consecrated their land to the church.”

Beginning in 1785, Whittaker built the communal society model that he thought all other Believer societies should follow. The Meetinghouse went up first. The village then expanded to provide living and working quarters for the original eight families. Construction was based on simplicity and functionality. The community was first known as New Lebanon, after the town, but was changed to Mount Lebanon in 1861.

For 160 years, until 1947, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon led the largest and most successful utopian communal society in America. At its peak, it consisted of 600 members and hundreds of buildings spread out over 6,000 acres. The federal government even gave them their own post office.

This community also developed the Shakers’ ideals of equality of labor, gender, and race; communal property; freedom; and pacifism, Grant says. Its buildings, furnishings, and even urban planning schemes represented the Shaker aesthetic of simplicity. Father Joseph Meachum, who took over when Whittaker died, standardized plans for subsequent communities.

chairClassic Shaker ladder-back chair

As it grew, the village was divided into smaller “Family” groupings, called Center, Church, Second, North, and so on. Each family had its own members, leadership, and commercial activities. And they were quite commercial. Their businesses, which included seed production, herbal medicines, and chair manufacturing, were very lucrative, and they were savvy salespeople. “They embraced the name Shakers, and by the 1870s everything they sold had the Shaker name on it,” Grant says. “It was easier to say than their full name, and it made for snappy marketing.” They even started a mail order catalog business by the 1840s — long before Sears ever met Roebuck.

Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities; since their lives were dedicated to their work, their products became renowned for their reliability and novelty. Many inventions that made life easier — including the clothespin, the circular saw, the rotary harrow, the Shaker peg, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, even a hernia truss — were invented by the Shakers at Mount Lebanon.

But the industrial revolution, coupled with their, um, lack of coupling, brought about the Shakers’ demise. By the early 1930s, their presence in the area was minimal. The last Mount Lebanon Shaker died in 1947. Over the following years, the village was broken into three sections and sold to various private owners, including the Darrow School, which still inhabits Mount Lebanon’s Church and Center Families. Currently, there are just a handful of Shakers who dwell in a village in Maine called Sabbathday Lake, but the numbers continue to dwindle. Ann Lee predicted this, but also foretold of a resurgence of believers soon after.

The North Family was purchased by the Shaker Museum and Library in 2004 as the future home for the museum. Now known as the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, the site was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965. It consists of 10 buildings, including the remains of the Great Stone Barn, a four-story, 10,000-square-foot testament to the Shaker world view that was, sadly, destroyed by a fire in 1972.

The museum is being relocated (see below), and if you haven’t considered the Shakers worth your time, remember Grant’s challenge. “Even though their life was anything but simple, the Shakers are the banner-holders for living the simple life,” he says. “Today, when living a committed life is becoming less common — families break apart, your bank cancels your mortgage, government is failing us — they give a rallying cry for a life of commitment to each other, to the poor, to civil rights. They kept the faith.”

shaker museum and libraryWilliam Burns works to restore the roof and plaster cornice of the Brethren’s Workshop; the building will be used as part of the new Shaker Museum and Library

Photograph by Peter Smith/David Lanoue, Inc.

Museum On the Move

The Shaker Museum and Library is moving from Old Chatham to the North Family site in a multiyear, multiphase project that is intended to focus attention on the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, says David Stocks, the organization’s president.

“Preserving and restoring 10 buildings spread out over 30 acres is a daunting task, but the first phase — stabilizing the old buildings — is now complete,” Stocks says. In the next few years, those buildings will be restored and, down the road, a new facility to house the collections will be built. Until then, the galleries, which were closed throughout 2011, will remain on hiatus. The museum will reopen in the spring for tours of the site.  

Money, of course, is always an issue, and contributions can be made through the museum’s Web site. This is more than just a local project, says Stocks: “The World Monument Fund has twice listed the site as one of the 100 most significant endangered historic sites in the world. Not the country, the world,” he emphasizes. “Mount Lebanon has worldwide importance, and it needs support.”

For more information, go to www.shakermuseumandlibrary.org or call 518-794-9100.

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