Feel the Human Hand at Hancock Shaker Village

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This article is from Issue 94 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Chair detective. The ladderback chair with a woven-tape seat is one of the most recognizable pieces of Shaker furniture. Here, Jeff Brace, a former timber-framer who has been with Hancock Shaker Village since 2008, explains how subtle differences in the finials and back splats identify the community that made the chair.

Feel the human hand at Hancock Shaker Viallage

By David Heim

The western Massachusetts area known as the Berkshires is home to dozens of summer music festivals, art museums, and trendy restaurants. It’s also where you’ll find Hancock Shaker Village, a carefully curated living museum that offers an in-depth look at how the Shakers lived, worked, and worshiped (see sidebar, p. 33). Anyone who loves finely crafted furniture, beautiful cabinets, and graceful oval boxes will enjoy a day here.

Don’t expect to see actors recreating activities from a century and a half in the past. The Shakers themselves left in 1959 and sold the property to an organization that turned it into a museum. Docents in the main buildings answer visitors’ questions and give brief informative talks about the Shakers’ daily routines, philosophy, and worship.

There’s plenty to see at Hancock Village, including thousands of objects ranging from small oval boxes to 20-ft.-long communal dining tables. Rooms are set up as they would have been in the 1800s, largely uncluttered but with explanatory labels and placards. Workrooms are arranged as the Shakers used them for weaving, broom-making, woodworking, and other endeavors. In the Laundry and Machine Shop building, for example, one room houses two lathes, two planers, a scroll saw, a table saw, and a massive bandsaw. Most are belt-driven and powered by a 3.5-hp water turbine in the bowels of the building. Chuck Wales, the interpreter in this room, is a retired mechanical engineer who has been explaining the machinery since the museum opened more than 50 years ago.

Everyday life frozen in time. The rooms in the village display the furniture, cabinets, and objects the Shakers used every day. Here, the table is filled with some of the paraphernalia used to make herbal medicines.
Inside the Round Stone Barn. A veritable forest-canopy of rafters meeting at a central column hold up the barn’s roof.

fastFACTS

The most distinctive of the 20 buildings at Hancock Shaker Village is the Round Stone Barn that was built in 1826. It’s the only Shaker structure of its kind. The barn housed 52 milk cows and was in use until the 1950s. It’s said that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville staged a footrace there. No word on who won.

Work rooms galore. Two massive benches dominate a second-floor woodshop in the Tannery building. Although the bench shown here probably dates from the early 19th century, it’s still usable today.
Shaker shop tales. Chuck Wales has been explaining 
the workings of the machine room to visitors for some 
50 years. He’s holding an innovative double rolling pin.

The plane life. Like other 19th century woodshops, the one at Hancock Shaker Village has a large complement of handplanes—small ones on the shelves for decorative moldings and rabbets, larger ones atop the cabinet for flattening and smoothing boards.

Touring the site is a vivid experience. As my traveling companion said, “You can feel the human hand. It’s as if the Shakers are still here.” And their attention to detail is always close by. It’s difficult to walk through the buildings without marveling at the examples of skilled furniture-making, like the chair and candle stand shown on the previous page.

Hancock Shaker Village has 20 buildings that are open daily from mid-April through mid-November. The museum hosts an ambitious roster of art exhibits, demonstrations, lectures, workshops, and other events scheduled throughout the summer and fall. On the day we visited, for example, young children lined up for pony rides and a chance to pet young lambs and goats in the Round Stone Barn. At the end of the day, master woodworker Christian Becksvoort gave a talk about Shaker furniture to a standing-room-only crowd.

Throughout the summer, activities include goat yoga sessions, calf cuddling for the kids, and workshops on basket weaving or making a Shaker carrier (an oval Shaker box with handles). A day at Hancock Shaker Village is certain to give you a new (or renewed) appreciation for the Shakers’ craftsmanship and attention to detail, and how those talents continue to influence us today.

Water-driven woodworking. At Hancock, the Shakers harnessed water power for manufacturing. All the woodworking machines shown here are belt-driven from a 3.5-hp water turbine beneath the floor.

Visiting Information

  • Address: 1843 W. Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA 01201
  • Phone: (413) 443-0188
  • Website: hancockshakervillage.org

Hours:

  • April–late June, daily 10 AM–4 PM
  • July–October, daily 10 AM–5 PM
  • Extra holiday hours in November and December; see web site.

Ticket Prices:

  • Adults $20
  • Seniors (65 and over), AAA members,
  • MTA cardholders, U.S. military $18
  • Youth (13-17) $8
  • Children (12 and under) Free
  • NOTE: Visitors can take photos and videos for personal use, but tripods aren’t allowed in the historic buildings.

Sunday go to meeting. Sunday worship was a joyous time for the Shakers. They assembled in a large meeting room, filled with light from large windows. The service always included men and women trembling, whirling, and shaking ecstatically.

The Shakers: Living in Heaven on Earth 

Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shakers have been a presence in American society since their founder and a handful of followers emigrated from England in 1774.

This small group, led by Ann Lee, the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith, settled near Albany, New York. Over the next quarter-century or so, they attracted hundreds of converts and established 19 settlements in New York, New England, Ohio, and Kentucky. At their height in the 19th century, they could claim some 5,000 believers. Now, though, only a few Shakers remain, at the community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Although the Shakers were a Christian sect, they didn’t have churches or pulpits. Worship, for the Shakers, was part of everyday activity. Work (“laboring,” in Shaker parlance) was the same as the worship ceremony. They held Sunday services in large meeting rooms, with men seated on one side and women on the other. Music was important to the Shakers, who wrote some 25,000 songs. So was dance; they earned their nickname from their ecstatic moving to “shake off” sins.

The Shakers lived in communal agricultural societies, apart from the world at large. Their aim was to create heaven on earth. Women were equal to men in all respects and shared leadership duties. A set of strict rules governed their activities and warned against superfluous ornament; this fostered the clean, unadorned look that we associate with Shaker furniture today.

Shakers were sharp business operators. For example, the ladderback chairs that some communities made were best sellers of their day. Other communities were well known for their seeds, tanned leather, and herbal medicines. The Hancock community’s business ventures included a thriving dairy farm and leather tannery.

The Shakers were also relentless innovators. Among their creations: The flat broom, the metal pen nib, the apple peeler, and the circular saw. 

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