Shakers get by with help from friends

Volunteers support small sect in Maine
Associated Press, July 27, 2003

NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine It’s a tall order keeping a big family farm going when you grow your own vegetables, raise your own livestock and care for 18 buildings, some as old as the nation itself.

It’s even tougher when there are just the four of you overseeing 1,800 acres and no descendants to take over when you’re gone. That’s the situation for the world’s remaining Shakers, members of a dying religious sect that flourished in the 1800s.

Fortunately, they have dozens of supporters a group of volunteers, who, though unwilling to join their religion, admire their way of life so much that they do what they can to support the Shakers.

Like their forebears and the Amish, with whom they are often confused, the remaining Shakers at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village cling to tradition. They live a communal, agrarian lifestyle that combines worship, hard work and simple living.

But their days of growth are gone. Unlike the Amish, the Shakers are celibate, able to increase their numbers only through converts, or adopting orphans, a practice they no longer follow.

“A life of denial is not attractive to people,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the two Shaker men. “People don’t like to sacrifice.”

A recent day found the two women, Sister Frances Carr, 76, and Sister June Carpenter, 65, making home-grown strawberry rhubarb marmalade. Hadd, 46, and Brother Wayne Smith, 40, were in the barn cleaning out stalls and giving the animals fresh water.

Simply maintaining the historic farm is an enormous task.

“At this point, it’s triage,” said Hadd, as he made his way between the 1830 barn and the more “modern” six-story dwelling house built in 1883.

Luckily, 60 volunteers showed up one recent morning to pitch in. They came from New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Bathed in warm sunshine and swatting black flies, the “Friends of the Shakers” hoisted shovels, painted fences, fixed porch screens and cleaned windows. They planted roses in front of the cemetery.

“I like preserving a way of life,” said Ann Spencer, a volunteer from just 30 miles away, who was painting a fence. “They have a lot of property here and they can’t do it all themselves.”

Ray McCaskey came all the way from Chicago. The CEO of Health Care Service Corp., which runs Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in three states, said his fascination with the Shakers began as “an extension of history, and it ended up being personal.”

Robert King of Putney, Vt., has studied the Shaker gardens. “You can come here and experience something that never stopped,” he said. “The old agriculture tradition is here.”

Along with manual labor offered twice a year, the 30-year-old Friends group also donates about $10,000 a year.

The Shakers are thankful.

“With 60 people working on the grounds, it allows you to get things done in a day that would take a month,” Hadd said. “It really helps out a lot.”

The Shakers settled in 1783 at Sabbathday Lake, one of 19 such communities across the country at one time or another. At its peak, this community was populated by 183 souls.

While other Shaker villages faded away, this one in the gentle hills survived. Today, it remains a working farm with 50 sheep, cattle, pigs, gardens and 18 buildings, the oldest of which dates to the 1760s.

About 10,000 tourists visit each summer. Many of those think they’re seeing history, and indeed they are. What some probably don’t realize is it’s living history, and a living religion.

The Shakers rise early for personal devotions, have breakfast together, join in prayer and then go about their chores following the words of founder Ann Lee: “Hands to work and hearts to God.”

Known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, they earned the derisive moniker “shaking Quakers” for their charismatic dance. The worship style changed long ago, but the Shaker name stuck.

Shakers are credited with a number of inventions, including the flat-bottom broom, the spring-loaded clothespin and the circular saw. Despite their old-fashioned farm life, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers have computers, Internet access and a Web site.

Each week, several people contact the community via e-mail about joining. But few are willing to adopt the lifestyle.

Sister Carr bristles at news reports that have repeatedly described the Sabbathday Lake village as the “last” Shakers.

That suggests the religion will someday die completely. And that’s an outcome she and the others aren’t willing to accept. “It’s frustrating that for the past 20 or 30 years all the reports were that the Shakers were essentially shut down, closed, not accepting new members,” she said.

They pray daily for new followers, but unlike other religions, the Shakers don’t go forth preaching their message or trying to convert others.

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