A little over an hour’s drive from the mid-Hudson Valley through the beautiful Berkshires brings you to Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. What a revelation it is! If you thought you knew all about the Shakers before you arrived, a visit here will fill in the gaps in your knowledge as it corrects the misconceptions. The Shakers were amazingly productive and inventive people; not just hard working and devout, but innovative and design conscious, progressive environmentalists, adaptable to change and – most important – lovers of life.
Once inside, the whole village is open to your inspection, plus there are hikes through the fields, forests and pastures to see the reservoir, cemetery and the beauty of nature that surrounds this peaceful haven. Be sure to check the list of scheduled events for that day. A recent visit offered a water-powered wood-lathe demonstration, a hand and foot powered wood-working demonstration and a tour of the four-story Brick Dwelling House.
The 1830 Brick Dwelling House is worth the tour. Entering through the kitchen, and – depending upon the day – visiting various upper floors, the separation of sexes is readily apparent. The Shakers were progressive enough to believe that women and men were equal a century before women had the right to vote, and certainly didn’t care what color your skin was, but they did separate the brethren by gender. One side of the house was for men and the other women, and both were identical. As a sign of their ingenuity and practicality, a large room at one end of the building had dividing walls that could be lowered to create separate dining areas for men and women, then raised into the ceiling for meetings.
The various industries necessary to run a self-sufficient village are scattered around the property. The engineering needed to bring in water to run the lathes and laundry, the hundreds of planes needed to shape the beautiful wooden chairs, oval boxes and furniture, the brilliance of the round barn design – all this and more – offer something to interest every member of your family.
When touring the village you’ll likely see some things that don’t make sense to our modern way of thinking. An odd beam connecting the garage to the resident house; flexible “feet” on the backs of chairs; the curious 45 degree angled chimneys; all make perfect sense when you begin to think like a Shaker. For every problem they encountered they found a simple, elegant solution; one that was cost-effective, practical and – most obviously – pleasing to the eye.
You’ll find the answers to the above puzzles when you visit. You’ll also find fruit trees, lush gardens and contented farm animals completing the picture of bucolic self-sufficiency and the simple life that was the Shakers. Bring the kids, your camera, wear good walking shoes (the Village is huge) and pack a picnic lunch for a delightful day of nature, architecture and profound simplicity. You will be amazed!
Hancock Shaker Village is open daily from 10-4, adult admission $20, youth (ages 13 to 17) $8, children 12 and under with their family are FREE. For more information and directions visit their website.