Stirred by Shakers

Imagine a group of Hare Krishnas descending upon a small New England village two hundred years ago. That’s how a witty guide at Hancock Shaker Village described the arrival of the Shakers in Hancock, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s. I’m sure the Shakers made similar impressions in other parts of the country, including Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, the site of America’s largest restored village. Although I haven’t made it there yet, I did have an opportunity to visit the almost eerily well-preserved Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires this summer.



One reason my guide likened the Shakers to Hare Krishnas was their form of worship, which involved ecstatic singing and dance (click to learn more). But he also drew a comparison between the brightly dressed HK’s and the Shakers, who often embellished their buildings and furnishings with vibrant shades of yellow, red, and green.



Many decorative arts aficionados are familiar with the graceful purity of Shaker furniture, but not as many have visited the villages where it was made. If they did, they’d discover the Shakers’ genius for creating architecture that is just as inventive, lovingly detailed, and perfectly suited to its purpose.



The round barn at Hancock Shaker Village is a stunning example, with a circular stone base, polygonal clerestory upper level, and cylindrical lantern topped with an almost whimsical pinnacle. The upper levels’ windows ventilate the barn and flood the cool stone interior with light. Lucky cows once roamed the outer area of the circle, poking their heads through the vertical railings to munch hay tossed down from the lofts, barely noticing hands that milked them while they dined.



I visited Hancock Shaker Village on a quiet, rain-polished morning when only a few other guests were present. I had each building nearly to myself and could almost feel the presence of the former inhabitants. Their craftsmanship spoke to me in the language of texture, color, and shape and invited me to come close and then closer to appreciate every detail.






When I left the village hours later, I felt as though I had been in communion with a fellowship of spirits who understand that the places we build—where we live and work and sleep—should be simply beautiful and beautifully simple.






‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.



When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

“Simple Gifts” a dance song by Shaker Elder Joseph, 1848







Now I can’t get enough of the Shakers, but until I can travel to the Shaker community in Kentucky, I am savoring the luminous photographs of it Pieter Estersohn published in his new book from The Monacelli Press, Kentucky, Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country. This is one of the loveliest books to be published in recent years. If you are drawn to old houses and their quiet ways of speaking, this is a book for you.


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