Shakers: Isn’t It Ironic?

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

One of the collections within UASC is Communal Studies, which focuses on intentional communities, both historic and contemporary. “According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), an intentional community refers to any custom-made community. “Intentional community” is an umbrella term that includes “ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, income-sharing communes, student co-ops, spiritual communities, and other projects where people live together on the basis of explicit common values.”” This collection is rich in content, with many aspects to explore.  Back in April 2020, a blog entitled “Saving the Planet”  looked at ecovillages.  Today we’re going to examine two Shaker villages whose demises led to ironic consequences.

First, a short primer on Shakers.  The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century led to new denominations outside the Catholic church, such as Lutherans, Methodists, etc.  Other smaller, less mainstream, denominations also arose, such as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, aka the Shakers.  Initially, the Shakers were part of the Quaker movement.

“The Quakers, or Society of Friends, were founded in England in 1652 by George Fox.  Early Quakers taught that direct knowledge of Christ was possible to the individual – without need from a Church, priest or book. No official creed exists. Their belief that God exists in all people caused many to be sensitive to injustice and practice pacifism. The name “Quaker” was derived from their process of worship, where their violent tremblings and quakings predominated. This form of worship changed in the 1740s, though it was retained by one group in Manchester, England. The “Shaking Quakers,” or Shakers, split from mainstream Quakerism in 1747. … The Shakers developed along their own lines, forming into a society with Jane and James Wardley as their leaders. Ann Lee, the founder and later leader of the American Shakers, and her parents were members of this society.”

It was Ann Lee, known as Mother Ann Lee, who brought Shaker ideals to this country in 1774.  At the height of the movement in the United States, there were at least 20 Shaker settlements with as many as 20,000 members.  We’re going to look Enfield Shaker Village in CT and Shirley Shaker Village in MA.  No longer existing today, they share an ironic fate, given the Shaker concerns for injustice, pacifism, and focus on creating a better society.  They became prisons!

The initial band of Shakers settled in New York.  “Efforts to recruit converts were mostly unsuccessful until about 1780, when Enfield, Connecticut native Joseph Meacham, a Baptist preacher living in New Lebanon, New York, heard about the Shaker movement. He soon converted, bringing many of his own followers with him. Though he would later rise to the top of the Shaker leadership and make New Lebanon the central Shaker community in 1787, his Enfield connections planted the seed of a Shaker community there only a year after his conversion.”  Early Enfield settlers faced violence and hostility from “The World’s People,” the Shaker name for non-believers, who feared what they saw as strange Shaker beliefs and customs.  Things eventually calmed down after a mob attack in 1782. “The Enfield settlement was divided into groups known as families. The Church Family was the first to be organized and had overall control of and responsibility for the Enfield settlement. The North Family was organized next, followed by the South, West, and East Families. At their peak, each family had 40 or more members and together occupied nearly 3,000 acres.”  The regimented Shaker life appealed to many who saw it as a source of comfort and security.  The celibate Shakers also took in and raised orphans and children whose parents were unable to care for them. They were renowned for their hospitality, and dining with the North Family was a treat.  The Enfield Shakers (and Shakers in general) produced goods and services that added to their prosperity.  But, times change.  “The Shaker movement lost momentum in the 1850s and began a slow decline as American society evolved. Industrialization–and the opportunities it created–opened new options that were more appealing than the celibate and strictly controlled Shaker lifestyle. People–young men in particular–ceased to join in any numbers. Most children raised by the Shakers left when they reached the age of choice. In Enfield, the West Family closed in 1854 and the East Family in 1874. Membership in the remaining families continued to dwindle, and those remaining had to rely increasingly on hired help to operate the farms. The North Family closed its doors in 1913, leaving only a handful of Shakers occupying some of the Church and South Family buildings. On November 24, 1914, the Shaker property was sold. … The sale agreement allowed the Shakers to remain on the property for the rest of their lives, but the last three left Enfield in 1917 for other communities.”

In 1931, the State of Connecticut purchased 1,400 of these acres for a prison farm. In 1994, the Hartford, CT newspaper published this information: “Without someone overseeing the dispersion of Shaker property in the 1930s, … artifacts not burned were often lost or misplaced. … In the ’30s, after the state bought the land for a prison farm, officials couldn’t give away hundreds of Shaker chairs with their trademark backs and roller balls on the back legs, or the oval maple-and-pine boxes whose tops, 100 years after their construction, fit so well that collectors jokingly call them Shaker Tupperware. In 1939 or 1941, the state burned what then amounted to $1 million of goods, according to Stephen Miller, an area collector of Shaker printed material.  “I don’t know if they didn’t know what to do with it,” said Richard Steinart, who was warden at Enfield from 1960 to 1986. “A lot of material was stored in barns in the North Family. By the time I got there in ’60, almost everything was gone. The buildings were there, and a lot of the buildings that had been used by the prison for 30 years were stripped.”   Fortunately, the land and property that were part of the South Family at Enfield was privately owned and thus not part of the sale to the prison. Many of these buildings remain intact, testifying to the presence of the Enfield Shakers.

(right to left), Church Family trustees’ office (behind utility pole), infirmary, laundry, wagon shed, and dry house (small structure) in front of wagon shed, 1915
Source: UASC CS 662-006hp-0001, Dan Janzen collection
North Family sisters’ building, 1915
Source: UASC CS 662-006hp-0026, Dan Janzen collection
Front view, South Family dwelling, July 20, 1992
Source: UASC CS 662-006sc-0053, Dan Janzen collection
Rear of the South Family dwelling (left), laundry (right) and small shed (center), July 20, 1993
Source: UASC CS 662-006sc-0073, Dan Janzen collection

Shirley Shaker Village, in Massachusetts, was founded in 1793.  It wasn’t as large as Enfield but was similar in all other aspects. “The Shirley Shakers were not known for their baskets, boxes, or chairs, but for their brooms, mops and applesauce.  Their community was also unique among the Shakers in that they built a large cotton manufactory on the banks of the Catacunemaug.”  It, like Enfield, was subject to mob violence. Crowds gathered to listen to Mother Lee’s 1783 speech in nearby Harvard were set upon by a mob. 

Trustees’ office and shop, the picnic table (background left) is on the location of the Meeting House, October 25, 1990
Source: CS 662-019sc-0031, Dan Janzen collection
Church Family dwelling (one of the cupolas was added by the Industrial School for Boys to make the roof line symmetrical), October 25, 1990
Source: CS 662-019sc-0032, Dan Janzen collection
Entrance to Massachusetts Correctional Institution (on site of Shirley community) from Harvard Road, October 25, 1990
Source: CS 662-019sc-0021, Dan Janzen collection

“Some of the mob were current and former members of the militia, and made up about 100 men. Ann Lee was skirted away into a dark closet concealed by the placement of a high chest of drawers in front of the door. A woman who begged to leave the area to attend to her still nursing infant was permitted to leave the scene and immediately contacted the proper authorities.  Still, by the next day, James Whittaker, who had returned to Harvard to attempt to make peace, as well as a sister attempting to protect her brother, had been badly whipped. True to their faith, the Shakers asked God to forgive their tormentors’ sins, and thereafter outsiders never again seriously oppressed the Shakers.”   Shirley Shaker Village closed in 1908 “and its remaining sisters moved to the nearby Harvard Shaker Village. The state of Massachusetts purchased the property and used it to house an Industrial School for Boys. In 1972 the reform school was closed. At present, the grounds of the Shirley Shaker Village are used for minimum, medium, and maximum security prison facilities. Eight of the Shaker buildings remain on their original foundations. Three others have been moved.”

The fate of these two villages was an ignominious end for what began as such a hopeful ideal.  This blog cannot be long enough to delve more deeply into the Shakers, but it can recommend a visit to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in KY.  If you’ve not been there, it’s an easy drive to Harrodsburg, not far from Lexington, KY.  There are 34 original structures on the 3,000 acre property, a great way to see and experience the life of the Shakers. Check out its website.  It’s a place of great beauty year-round.

Center part of Peasant Hill Shaker Village community, 1979
Source: CS 662-016sc-0004, Don Janzen collection
Center Family workshop, December 31, 2000
Source: CS 662-016dc-0011

Another great source of information about Shakers is the Ken Burns documentary, Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God. Rice Library has this on DVD in the audiovisual materials on the first floor, call number BX9766 .S525 2004.  (Unlike a lot of Burns documentaries, this one is less than one hour in length — still a worthwhile source, but perhaps less intimidating in terms of a time commitment.)

Resources Consulted

Bixby, Brian L.,”Seeking Shakers: Two Centuries of Visitors to Shaker Villages” (2010). Open Access Dissertations.

History of the Shakers. National Park Service

Miller, Mike. Enfield’s Shaker Legacy., August 20, 2019.

Samfield, Dina. “Harvard, Shirley Share Shaker History.” Nashoba Valley Voice, July 11, 2019.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

Shakerism in America. National Park Service

Shirley Shaker Village.  

Shirley Shaker Village. Shirley Historical Society.

CS 662, the Don Janzen Collection (in UASC)

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