Original post 7/28/2006
I see that Ralph Luker has picked up on this Boston Globe piece about the last four surviving Shakers in America. I read the piece, but I suppose I didn't blog about it because, since I go past the small compound many times a year on my way to my in-laws house in Poland, Maine, I kind of forgot how unique the Shakers really are (familiarity breeds....ennui?). That is something I learned when I visited the Shaker Village in the early 1980s (a982, I think) as part of the innovative program called The Maine Journey (started by the late Suzanne Smith) and I shouldn't have let my regular drive-bys obscure this fact. (Bad Historian! Bad!)
On the face of it, a 12 or 13 year old boy can think of more exciting things to see than a religious retreat that consists of a few elderly ladies and a slightly odd man in his thirties (which is what the group was made up of in the early 1980's). In fact, what may seem so different to us in today's hi-tech world--the farming, gardening, raising animals, in short, the simple life--wasn't all that strange to anyone growing up in rural Maine. But being introduced to the Shakers' radical definition of equality was an eye-opener to a small town kid. Not only did they believe in "separate-but-equal" (men and women have different doors to the church--or meeting house, first instance), but their vow of celibacy meant they could only continue as a community by replenishing their ranks from outside. And while they had used adoption in the past, that practice had stopped in the 1960's and people weren't exactly banging down the doors to live a 19th century-style life of celibacy back in the 1970s and 80s.
Even a distracted kid of 13 could see that they were probably fighting a losing battle to stay viable. And while it seemed strange that these people took their notion of equality to the degree which they did, I admired them for not compromising their principles. I also definitely picked up on the inherent peacefulness of the whole village. It was a nice, relaxing place to visit--even with 50 or so 13 year old boys and girls running around (actually, we were a generally well-behaved bunch--at least by 13 year old standards--and we didn't even need Ritalin!).
One final note: the Shaker gift shop also sold some interesting items. I and many other kids purchased spruce gum and a mouth harp (also called a Jew's Harp). The gum was certainly an "acquired" taste, and though The Maine Journey impromptu mouth-harp band probably didn't sound very good to the outsider, it provided a couple hours worth of entertainment as we made our way back home. Especially whenever one of us "twanged" the flexible metal vibrator part into our teeth--then the "wango wang" of the harp would be puctuated by a "Yelp!" followed by the laughter of boys and girls revelling in the pain of their pals.