A peek back in time: A visit to Hancock Shaker Village

  • Seeds were major source of income at Hancock Shaker Village, and are on dispay at the museum. NINA SCOTT

  • One of the buildings at Hancock Shaker Village. NINA SCOTT

  • A dining room at Hancock Shaker Village. NINA SCOTT

  • Pottery bowls and a grater located inside a building at Hancock Shaker Village are illuminated by the light from a sunny spring day. NINA SCOTT

  • A specially designed cupboard for pies, with screens to keep mice and insects out, is on display at Hancock Shaker Village. NINA SCOTT

For the Gazette
Published: 5/27/2022 5:14:28 PM
Modified: 5/27/2022 5:12:31 PM

This past semester my husband, Jim, and I took a fabulous Five College Learning in Retirement seminar on museums. Jim chose Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, which we had visited at least twice before, but for the preparation of this article we decided another visit was necessary. (There are fine background videos on their website).

How glad we are to have gone! May 11 was a perfect spring day. The trip from Amherst takes about 1½ hours and we made sure to get there by 11 a.m., the opening hour. There is a cafe on the premises, but we packed a lunch (cheaper and faster) and were glad to have time to explore the beautiful grounds and buildings.

There were not many tourists about yet, but a docent told us that in high summer they often get 1,000 visitors a day. We were glad to have come early.

Hancock Shaker Village was an active community of some 300 at its height from the 1780s to 1960, after which it was taken over by a private entity and converted into a museum, which is now open April through December.

Read up on the history of the Shakers before you go: It was a very egalitarian group, governed by two elders and two eldresses; men and women lived and ate separately but both contributed equally to the success of the community. Orphans and children who wanted to join could do so; they were taught a trade and not pressured to stay, though many did.

Case in point is the story of Polly Jane Reed, a member of the Mount Lebanon (New York) Shaker community. According to a plaque at the village, Polly was born in 1818 and lived with her family in Fairfield, New York. “In 1825, when she was just seven years old, Elder Calvin Green, a Shaker missionary, visited her family. Her parents chose not to join the Shakers, but Polly was inspired. Her parents gave her their blessing, and a new pair of shoes. She walked with the missionaries 70 miles through snow to her new home.”

Of Polly, Calvin Green remarked, “I thot she was about the bravest, & most spunky little one I ever saw & one worth having.” In later life Polly said, “A Shaker life has been mine to enjoy since childhood, and I have never regretted the choice I then made.”

The Shakers were highly skilled farmers, furniture makers, weavers and cooks, who made a good income selling their wares. They were innovators in architecture, as their Round Stone Barn (1826), the Brick Dwelling (1830) and the Poultry House (1878) attest. The latter had large windows facing west; the constant light kept the hens laying even during the winter months.

One large source of income was selling seeds. They were the first to package seeds separately by type, so that you didn’t just buy mixed bean seeds, but could focus on one type, such as cranberry or shell beans. Shaker seeds were reliable and always of the best quality. They also sold herbs, grown on the premises, woven cloaks, furniture, and their famous baskets and boxes. Simplicity and elegance in all they did.

Walking through the buildings, I was struck again at the beauty of design of the rooms, the barn, the Brick Dwelling. Light poured in through the windows and rested on the blond wooden casings around the windows. I was, of course, drawn to the kitchen. Their oven could bake seven pies at once (pies were served at nearly every meal) and they designed hanging cupboards with fine mesh on three sides, protecting stored pies from mice and insects.

The Round Barn was especially interesting this time of year, as there were baby animals (calves, lambs and goats) housed there. A docent urged me to pet the impressive horns of a large and very tame black ram. “Go ahead — he doesn’t mind, and you’ll be surprised at how warm they are!” They were, and I was.

The Shakers ate superbly, since they had all kinds of fresh ingredients at hand and were lavish with butter and heavy cream, but since men and women engaged in hard physical labor, they worked off the calories. There are Shaker cookbooks to consult, as well as online recipes, and I decided that I would try a two-crust Shaker lemon pie, which can be made either with regular or Meyer lemons (my choice).

Be sure to choose fruit with little pith. If you like marmalade, you will probably like this pie. It looks beautiful and keeps well.

Nina M. Scott is professor emerita of Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a member of Five College Learning in Retirement. She writes a series about the offerings from the Five College Learning in Retirement program.
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