Why is the Farm at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village so Unique?

Reader Contribution by Mary Quinn Doyle
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Mother Ann Lee and eight of her followers established the Shaker Church in America in 1774. Over the years, more than thirty Shaker communities that focused on an agrarian and self-sufficient lifestyle were established in the United States. The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, is the only active Shaker community that exists in the world today. It is a peaceful community which has lived in harmony with the land since it was founded in 1783.*

Situated on 1800 acres of land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village remains a working farm. It is home to an apple orchard, tree farm, vegetable gardens, a commercial herb garden, hay fields, and pastures. Some of the traditional Shaker pastimes are still carried out at the Village, such as basket making, weaving, printing, and various handcrafts. At the present time, a flock of sheep, four Scottish Highland cattle, pigs, and several cats are being raised by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers.

Traditional Shaker Farming Practices Live On

Long ago the Shakers developed a reputation for their efficient and productive farming practices. They were founded as a peace-loving community based on common religious beliefs. Surprising to some is the fact that they were progressive in many ways with their assertion of the equality of the sexes, their communal lifestyle, their openness in welcoming those in need, and their embracing of inventions and technology.

The Sabbathday Lake Shakers cared for a dairy herd, sheep, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and draft horses when their thriving community was home to approximately two hundred individuals in the 1800’s. A gristmill, sawmill, several barns, spinhouse, herb house and a hothouse, where seedlings and flowers were raised, were all located on the property. Extensive gardens and an orchard abundant with a variety of apples graced the landscape. The Community was recognized for its knowledge of medicinal and culinary herbs and its collection of seeds. Plum, peach, and cherry trees were grown, as well as asparagus and strawberries.

Draft horses were utilized on the Shaker farm through the 1950’s. According to Leonard Brooks, the former Director of the Shaker Library, the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake are credited with advancing the efficiency of the horse-drawn Maine mower and also in improving the design of a heavy-duty collar for the draft horses.The Shakers that lived in the various rural communities in our country have always been innovative in regard to farm developments. They have been credited with improving the air-tight heating stove, spring clothes pins, an apple peeler, the butter churn, the flat broom, washing machine, circular saw blade, and metal-nibbed pens.

Keeping up with all the farm chores translated into busy days for the Shakers. The Brethren, the hired men, and the Shakers’ adopted boys worked in the fields and mills.Various crops such as potatoes, corn, grains, and squash were planted, weeded, and harvested. Apples, pears, grapes, and small fruits were grown. Wood needed to be harvested and milled. Farm tools and equipment required maintenance and the eighteen buildings needed upkeep. From the beginning of their history, men were hired to help with the logging and the sawmill and the field work.

The Sisters at Sabbathday Lake focused on spinning, weaving, cooking, cleaning, washing, canning, and baking. They helped with the apple production and harvested herbs. Some of the fancy goods that they made included poplarware boxes, oval sewing carriers, cloaks, dusters, and fans made from turkey feathers.

Food Production and Livestock on a Shaker Farm

When the village was heavily populated, a variety of farm animals provided food for various markets and for the Shaker Community. Tending to the livestock was time consuming. Cows needed to be milked twice a day. Eggs needed to be collected. The cattle, pigs, horses, turkeys, chickens, and sheep needed to be fed. A flock of sheep still can be viewed on the grounds of the Shaker Village in New Gloucester. Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the three remaining Shakers, explained that many of the sheep that they presently care for were dropped off at the farm over the years because the animals were in need of a home.

Back in the 1780‘s, sheep grazed in the same Shaker pastures that they do today in New Gloucester. Each spring, the sheep were sheared and their raw fleeces were brought to the Spin House where twigs and grass were removed from the wool in a process called “skirting.” The wool was then sorted according to its quality, length, or color, before it was washed.

Apples have always figured predominantly in the Shaker Community. Fresh apples were in demand for the market and the Shakers processed the apples to make and sell applesauce and cider. Apple bees were held in the evenings at which apples were cut and dried for winter storage. The apple orchard is still flourishing at Sabbathday Lake. An arrangement has been made with the Maine Apple Company to maintain the orchard. The Shakers still sell Cortland, Macintosh, and Honey Crisp apples during the fall. There is free cider pressing with a hand press. Visitors can bring their own apples to be pressed or they can buy Shaker apples at the Shaker Store.

While the Shakers used to harvest wood from the 1800-acre property, woodlot management is now in the hands of a forester. Growing herbs at Sabbathday Lake has long been a tradition and the Shakers have received national recognition for the herbs that they grow and the workshops that they conduct such as Herb Garden Design for the Everyday Cook; Shaker Verse and Pressed Botanical Design; Lavender in the Kitchen; and Heirloom Herbal Wreath and Ornaments. A Sabbathday Lake Herb Garden Internship program is available for those interested in learning more about herb gardening, herb lore, and creative herb uses.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Tours and Products

Individuals interested in purchasing some of the Shakers’ herbal products should check out their extensive online catalog on their website. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers sell specialty spice mixes such as mulled cider mix, apple pie spice, and pumpkin pie spice. The Shakers also carry thirty-seven varieties of culinary herbs and herbal blends in addition to an assortment of seventeen simple herbal teas and herbal tea blends. Shaker Rose Water, Shaker Mint Water, and Shaker Peach Water are three of their unique herbal products that are often used in cooking as a vanilla substitute. Their Shaker herbal teas include a choice of catnip, chamomile, herbal blend, horehound, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint blend, minty balm, rose hips, peppermint, and spearmint. They also offer an 1858 recipe of Eldress Hester Ann Adams’ potpourri that can be used as a room or drawer freshener. Their balsam fir pillows have proven to be a popular item.

Nature hikes are offered on the Shaker grounds by trained naturalists. On these hikes, visitors can enjoy exploring the Shaker fields and forests. Some of the other special events offered at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village each year include the Maine Festival of American Music, Maine State Open Farm Day, the Maine Native American Summer Market and Demonstration; the Harvest Festival; and the Shaker Christmas Fair.

Besides being located in an idyllic setting, the farm that is operated by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers provides some very special aspects. For visitors who schedule a tour or attend one of the workshops there is a wealth of knowledge that can be acquired. Various exhibits provide interesting stories and photos. History buffs will relish in viewing various artifacts in the Shaker Museum and research opportunities afforded by the Shaker Library. Music lovers are treated to special classes and concerts. The gift shop abounds with a selection of unique and one-of-a-kind items.

For those interested in experiencing a view of the spiritual essence of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, Sunday Meetings at 10 a.m. are open to the public and visitors are welcome to participate in song or testimony, however the Spirit moves them. According to Brother Arnold Hadd, “The Shakers’ founder Mother Ann said that ‘A strange gift never came from God,’ and visitors are urged to not feel strange or a stranger.”

Become a Friend of the Shakers

The Friends of the Shakers, a membership-based support organization of more than 450 households nationwide, offers ongoing opportunities to become involved in helping out. Their efforts have aided in protecting the Shaker land from development. Members of their group help with historic renovations; raise funds for preservation and educational development; conduct work days in the spring and fall; and foster general interest in the Shakers and Shakerism.

Farm enthusiasts should be sure to include a visit to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village on their farm touring agenda. Farming is still alive and well at this last active Shaker Community. It is a place that is permeated by a sense of history and serenity. In a world often full of distractions and haste, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village offers some strikingly beautiful surroundings that invite visitors to slow down and enjoy a sense of quiet, reflection, and respect.

* A special thank you is extended to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Museum Director, Michael Graham, for verifying all the information presented in this story.

Caption: Sister Frances Carr, one of the last remaining Shakers, is shown enjoying the slideshow that took place at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village at the recent Open Farm Day.

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