Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gone and somewhat forgotten: America's first Shaker community near Albany

Shaker Cemetery, final resting place of founder Ann Lee

By Jane Feehan
America’s first Shaker Settlement, a few miles north of Albany, N.Y., close to the airport, looks like a place both time and people have forgotten. Remnants of the religious community include some interesting but dilapidated buildings, most of which are closed to visitors. The exception is the Meeting House, built in 1848, which serves as a museum. On some days, this settlement appears to be a ghost town; it could be if not for the efforts of The Shaker Heritage Society that works to preserve the history and cultural contributions of this religious group.

The community, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance was established in 1776 by Ann Lee, an illiterate textile worker from Manchester, England. Life in the Colonies began with about nine people and 200 acres. They became known simply as Shakers because of the way they worshipped, with meetings marked by shaking, dancing, and speaking in tongues.  Shakers lived by their values of simplicity, pacifism, celibacy, communal ownership of land, racial and sexual equality.

At the zenith of the community’s popularity in 1850, the Church Family near Albany included 350 residents and 2,000 acres. They were known for their innovations in canning, and laundering with an industrial size washing machine. The Shaker work ethic also produced the flat broom, the ladder-backed chair, and other furniture, and practical, simple architecture – all adopted by American culture.

Meeting House
The Shakers numbered about 6,000 throughout the U.S. (mostly in New England) in 1850 but Mother Lee’s community near Albany closed its doors in 1925.  Ann Lee, who died in 1784, is buried along with 450 other Shakers at a cemetery nearby. A small group, the Sabbathday Lake Settlement in Maine, still thrives.

                                                             Tags: Shaker history, religious communes, film research

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