While on our mini-vacation in the Berkshires, we went to the Hancock Shaker Village, located in Pittsfield, MA. It’s a living museum, meaning there are volunteers that are working in various areas doing what people would have done in the 19th century – blacksmithing, caning, cooking, farming. It is absolutely gorgeous. The land and the buildings are meticulously maintained. There weren’t very many people there, so we were able to have long talks with the various volunteers who were all friendly and clearly loved what they were doing.
The Shakers were a religious sect that believed in strict division between the sexes. When they gathered, the women all sat on one side of the room, with the men on the other, and they sat facing each other. There was a women’s workhouse, where the women’s work was done (weaving and broom-making), and a men’s workhouse, where they made chairs and other furniture. They did quite a business selling their goods – particularly their furniture. Not surprisingly, they died out (I guess that’s what happens when you can’t touch each other – no new members are ever born!).
The Shakers were not afraid of new technology. They embraced a lot of newfangled ideas. When they had a catastrophic barn fire, they spent several years constructing a circular stone barn. I asked one of the volunteers why the barn looked the way it did. What was wrong with the traditional red wooden barn that you see everywhere (still!) in New England? Here is their barn:
It turns out they put a lot of thought into the design of this barn. Rather than expending energy throwing hay up into the hay loft of a traditional style barn, only to have to pitch it down again for the cattle to eat, they made the second story of their barn accessible to oxen carts via a dirt ramp. The oxen carts would drive up into the second floor and around the circle, and the hay would be pushed off the cart and down into the center, where it would be ready for the cows to eat when they came in. The cows themselves stood with the front of their bodies on slightly raised platform where the milking would be done, and their back ends lowered a bit, so that any cow patties would end up on the lower floor, and the milk canisters stayed clean on the platform. There were hatch doors in the lower floor that could be opened and the cow patties could be shoved right down and into a waiting cart below, which would then drive up and out and away to fertilize the fields. It was really ingenious, especially considered there was nothing even remotely like it in this region.
The kids had a great time – there’s nothing like a museum that involves spending time out of doors! When the littler ones got tired of looking at furniture and things inside, they ran around outside. Here they are tumbling around in the grass outside while we were learning about the history of the Shaker chair:
The other fun thing was that the sheep were just roaming around free. They wandered in and out of the barn, and the kids walking through them, which they were ok with, until they weren’t, and then they’d run off all in a pack. It really did feel like stepping through time.
Speaking of stepping through time – here is the bathroom. Thankfully they had actual bathrooms for visitors. to use, because I was not getting anywhere near one of those corncobs!
We’ll definitely be back there someday… there was a lot to see, and it’s one of those places that I think you could get something new out of every time you go.