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Musings from a Historic Shaker Village During the 1940s

by Lesley Herzberg, Hancock Shaker Village on

2015 marks AASLH’s 75th Anniversary Year. For the occasion, AASLH has created a blog series for members to share their unique history and memories. Contributions were based around AASLH’s founding year, 1940, but members also shared other wonderful moments in local history. The celebration is not just about AASLH’s history, but about the collective history of AASLH members, both individual and institutional, and the work we do for the field of state and local history.

Hancock Shaker Village_sadie neal

Sister Sadie Neal (1849-1948)

Hancock Shaker Village congratulates AASLH during its 75th anniversary. 1940 was an interesting year at our site; more on that in a moment.  First, a little history: Hancock was established in the 1780s, one of the earliest of 18 Shaker communities. The Shakers lived, worshipped, innovated, and worked at this Western Massachusetts town up until 1960. In that final year, the Shakers sold their intact (albeit somewhat deteriorated) Village to a civic and patron group that began restoring it, making it into a professional museum, and offering public access and public programs.  Hancock Shaker Village was not a museum in 1940, it was a living community. What follows are a few observations from that year.

During the Shakers’ 170 years in Western Massachusetts, they grew to 300 to 500 people; they assembled and tended 1,200 acres of farmland and designed, constructed, and occupied dozens of buildings. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” their motto, perfectly expresses how Shaker faith was furthered by not only formal acts of worship (church service, choral music, confession of sin, etc), but also through farming, dairy milk production, furniture making, and product development and sales. Work was how they communed with one another and with God. Work was how the Shakers supported themselves and their self-reliant community. To them, their effectiveness, efficiencies, and a job well done knitted them together as a group and symbolized true Shaker “union”.

Ninety percent (90%) of the young people who came to the Shakers with their parents or came as orphans chose to leave and establish themselves in the “World”, as the Shakers called it. This meant young adults did not often stay, sign the Shaker covenant, or become full members of the community. By 1940 this was most certainly true.  Sister Elizabeth Belden notes in her journal of 1940 that three girls chose to leave that year:
Gertrude Bennett left on January 6, 1940 at age 10
Geraldine Moore left on June 15, 1940 at age 11
Marion Doris Bennett left on June 29, 1940 at age 12

The Mt. Lebanon, New York Shaker community, once the largest Village of the 18 that the Shakers founded, would close in 1947. In 1940, one sister was keeping a journal about the daily events of her Mt. Lebanon life. Sadie Neal (1849-1948) lived at three different communities over the course of her lifetime. Interestingly, she was the United State government postmistress at Mt. Lebanon as well as the manager of the Mt. Lebanon Shaker farm and oval box shop. Sister Sadie was 91 when the following passage was written:
Sunday, June 23, 1940
48 [degrees F.] above 0 at Cottage. Clear and pleasant but a little cool for this time of year. Garden is planted but seeds are not coming very good. Our laundry week; put clothes to soak.

Much of America in 1940 was still rural and agrarian. This was true of the lifestyle of the dwindling group of Shakers at Hancock and Mt. Lebanon. They lived close to the land and remained devoted to the care and feeding of their community, both inside the Village proper and in the greater region in which they lived.

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