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Shaker sampler

In New England, discovering the religious sect's simple gifts to American culture.

August 31, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Hancock Shaker Village, Mass. — Hancock Shaker Village, Mass.

When you first see the village, sleeping on the flank of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, you think of impossibly perfect places: Shangri-La, Brigadoon, Moon River. You think of the world the way it ought to be: everything clean, orderly and light, with everyone working together. You think of heaven on Earth, which would sit just right with the people who lived here at Hancock Shaker Village.

They were the Shakers, members of a radical religious sect who came to America from England in 1774. Though the religion, which is rooted in Christianity, never caught on widely, its members' achievements were many. The flat broom and the seed packet are widely considered to have been Shaker inventions. Their now highly prized ladder-back chairs, burnished oval boxes and trustworthy woven baskets dull the distinction between art and craft. At needful times, a haunting Shaker song (above left) might come to mind, borrowed by Aaron Copland in "Appalachian Spring."

The Shakers believed heaven could be here and now on Earth for devotees who shunned the wicked world by joining celibate communal colonies such as the one that persisted at Hancock from 1783 to 1959. Membership in the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing peaked by 1840 at about 6,000 but then went into a long, slow decline. Today there is only one active village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with four Shaker brothers and sisters.

"Put your hands to work and your hearts to God," Mother Ann Lee, the society's founder, told her people. They happily followed the injunction, breeding livestock, cultivating medicinal herbs and seeds, weaving baskets, building furniture, canning produce. Everything they made was of the best quality, much in demand when Shaker peddlers took them to market.

Fortunately, many of their 19 "valleys of love and delight" have endured as museums. These are scattered widely across New England and the Midwest, except near the New York-Massachusetts border, about 150 miles north of New York City and 135 miles west of Boston. Early Shakers settled in an arc between Albany, N.Y., and Pittsfield, Mass., miraculously still unspoiled, rural and green. There, three venerable Shaker sites cluster: beautifully restored Hancock Shaker Village; the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, just west across the state line in New York; and the abandoned headquarters of the ministry at New Lebanon, N.Y., also known as Mount Lebanon.

In May I spent three days exploring this trio, tucked in one of the loveliest corners of New England. Besides showcasing the exquisite work of Shaker hands and telling their story, they speak eloquently of the impossible dream these people tried to realize.

Echoes of the past

Just east of the New York state line, Berkshire County, Mass., has long been a desirable getaway for well-heeled Bostonians and New Yorkers. They send their kids to summer camp and prep school here and rent cottages close to the music at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in Lenox, Mass., and the art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. When they want sushi or CDs, they go to Great Barrington, Mass., a chicly reconstituted New England mercantile town with plenty of good places to stay.

When I went to the Berkshires, I was smitten by Chatham, N.Y., about 25 miles northwest, in slower, less gentrified Columbia County, N.Y. There, an influx of urbanites, which intensified after Sept. 11, has brought stylish restaurants and cafes to a countryside that still speaks of simple Shaker pleasures.

Every gift shop in the neighborhood sells Shaker-inspired oval boxes, linen dish towels and "Tree of Life" postcards. Seemingly every B&B, on hilltop or in hollow, alongside winding country roads, has Shaker peg rails, candle stands and woodwork painted in the teal blue and spring green Shaker palette. In antiques stores you might find old ladder-back chairs, waiting for sanding and varnish to recall their Shaker designers, who abjured decoration for its own sake but saw the smile of the creator in finely crafted, useful things.

I stayed for three nights at the Inn at Silver Maple Farm in the Berkshire foothills in East Chatham, N.Y. There, an old white barn has been handsomely transformed into a rambling inn with nine rooms, two suites and a high-ceilinged great room, where Ross and Nancy Audino serve breakfast. The inn, opened in 1996, looks fresh and new inside, with exposed beams and polished pine floors. But the Audinos, expatriate New Yorkers, just bought the place and are feeling their way into the bed-and-breakfast business. To it they bring undemanding friendliness and real New York bagels, imported from that premier emporium, H&H Bagels on New York City's Upper West Side.

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