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Putting Their Faith in a Trust

To the last four Shakers, their idyllic Maine village is sacred soil. Their religion may not survive them, but now their land will.

November 09, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — For more than two centuries, the Shakers deftly balanced prayer with pragmatism. God would provide, they were certain. And what God overlooked, they took care of themselves.

Thus these pious men and women came to invent such practical devices as the spring-loaded clothespin, the flat-bottom broom and the circular saw. They patented a washing machine in 1858. Their multi-chambered oven from 1878 strongly resembles contemporary restaurant ovens.

The clean, graceful lines of Shaker furniture helped inspire Danish modern design. Their straightforward style of building influenced the founders of the Bauhaus movement.

"Hands to work, hearts to God," preached Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers' founder.

The Shakers were never large in number. At the sect's peak before the Civil War, 5,000 claimed membership in the monastic Protestant fellowship in which men and women live as brothers and sisters. The group, known formally as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, counsels self-reliance and mandates celibacy.

Today, four Shakers remain: two elderly women and two graying men. They are pondering the future not only of their faith but of their way of life.

The Shakers live communally, owning nothing as individuals. Favoring plain, utilitarian clothing -- denim pants and simple shirts for men; long, modest dresses for women -- they shun adornment. They pray together several times a day. They believe life is a constant quest to emulate Christ.

"One of our founders said, 'Even my every breath is a prayer to God,' " Brother Arnold Hadd said.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, their 1,800-acre farm and village here, is the last of 19 Shaker communities. To preserve their legacy as well as their idyllic, lakeside property, the Shakers announced last week that they had entered into a trust with the state of Maine and several conservation groups.

The community they are seeking to protect has changed little in 200 years. Most of the village's 19 buildings are white, wooden structures with sharp, pointed roofs and no ornamentation. Apple orchards dot a rolling landscape where pigs and cows graze peaceably. Flowerbeds abound, along with rows and rows of herbs and vegetables.

It is this land that keeps them self-sufficient. To the Shakers, it is sacred soil, and they are the guardians for new generations -- though the line of succession looks shaky. Lee had said that when there were as many Shakers left as there were fingers on a child's hand, the faith would rise again.

But no one has joined since Brother Wayne Smith, 41, became a Shaker in 1984. Sister Frances Carr, 78, is the village elderess. Sister June Carter is in her late 60s. Hadd, 48, is the village elder.

Besides the vagaries of age, the Shakers face worldly pressures. Property taxes hit $27,000 last year. Heating costs have soared. The village lies in the path of encroaching sprawl from Portland, half an hour south.

"Right now, we are sustaining our community," said Hadd, the only Shaker who agreed to talk about the small religious group. He sat at a picnic table near the gift shop that attracts thousands who tour the property each year. Paper sacks brimming with Cortland apples were for sale outside, on an honor system of payment. Inside, packaged herbs and floral wreaths lined the shelves. Delicate oval boxes, a traditional Shaker product carved by Smith, and pickles, jams and fudge made by Carter and Carr also were on display.

"These are very astute business folks," said Tim Glidden, head of the Land for Maine's Future Program, a partner in the Shakers' trust agreement. "The Shakers have always interacted directly and immediately with the material world in a way that some other spiritual communities do not."

The village also derives income by leasing out 20 acres of farmland and 60 acres of orchards, as well as a large gravel pit. The stretch of shoreline that the Shakers own on Sabbathday Lake remains undeveloped while resort homes multiply nearby.

Smith and Hadd tend the livestock -- 30 sheep, nine cattle, three pigs -- and maintain farm equipment and the village buildings. The oldest dates from the 1760s, and the newest -- a garage -- from 1910.

Carter manages the library, where thousands of Shaker documents are housed. She keeps the village records and handles correspondence. Carr tends the gardens, cooks every meal and writes books about the Shaker culture.

Most of the seven full-time employees work in the gift shop. In summers they are joined by eight part-time employees who help farm. About 60 members of a volunteer group, the Shaker Friends, visit annually to help with maintenance.

"Our life is not cheap," Hadd said, although he did not disclose the village income or the costs of the operation. "We would never want to get to the point where we could not pay our bills."

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