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Day Tripping: Peaceful Shaker Village

The Laker - July 6, 2017





Reaching for Perfection – Peaceful Shaker Village

Story & Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Everything the Canterbury Shakers did was aimed toward perfection. They had an orderly way to go about their days, right down to the way they set a table for dinner or conducted themselves when speaking to others. While set rules governed their lives, there was nothing fanatical or rigid about their beliefs.

Peaceful. Gentle. Loving. Humble. These words are apt descriptions for the way the Shakers lived and the manner in which they approached their religious beliefs. They weren’t out to prove they were better than anyone else but rather to reach for perfection in everything they did.

In spite of the fact that the Shakers at Canterbury have all passed on, their peaceful manner of living can still be felt when you visit Canterbury Shaker Village. Everywhere one looks the Shaker philosophy of making things to last is obvious and their creed passed down from Shaker spiritual leader Mother Ann Lee about work is quite thoughtful: “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live; and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” In other words, take your time and make things right, but savor each job and live in the present as if this was your last day on earth.

On an overcast Friday in June, I took a few hours respite and headed to Canterbury Shaker Village. Even though I live in the modern world, now and then I find a visit to this special place is a reminder to slow down, look, listen and relax.

I traveled Route 106 from Laconia to Belmont and then took Shaker Road, a right turn off the village’s main street area. Shaker Road is rural and very pretty any time of year, but especially so in summer and when autumn’s foliage sets the trees ablaze.

This was not my first trip to Canterbury Shaker Village; each time I visit I get a peaceful feeling when I spot the many buildings and old stonewalls on the property. But first, I passed the very simple, large cemetery that is the final resting place of many of the Canterbury Shakers. A large and well crafted stonewall encircles the cemetery and there is but one large headstone in the center of the burial site with one word – Shakers – carved onto its surface. The cemetery is in keeping with the Shaker belief that the collective community was the most important thing.

Just past the cemetery, I took a right hand turn into the big parking lot, with views of the green pastures and forest beyond. A group of cows grazed in the field the day I visited, and they seemed as much a part of the picturesque scene as the greenery and cloudy sky.

Canterbury Shaker Village is situated on both sides of Shaker Road, and visitors start in the attractive Visitor’s Education Center with a gift shop and restrooms. It is here one can pay the admission charge, wait for a tour led by a volunteer or staff member and browse in the gift shop.

I think the gift shop is a great introduction to the Village and the Shakers. It is artfully laid out and full of wonderful books, herbs, soaps, handmade Shaker-style wooden boxes, holiday ornaments and other great items. The music playing in the background the day I visited was soft and melodic. All gift shop items were well made and carefully chosen, in keeping with the Shaker theme and philosophies.

My visit took place in the pre-summer season (a weekday in mid June), and visitors wandered happily through the buildings that were open, but there was certainly the chance to sit quietly here and there and reflect and take in the beauty and serenity of the village.

My first stop, across Shaker Road, was the Carriage House, built in 1825 and today serving as an exhibition area focused on Shaker furniture and design. The large museum exhibit space houses a lot: old photographs of Shaker men and women, some of the beautiful furniture they made and used, their sewing kits, wooden buckets, cloaks, bonnets and so much more. I gazed at the faces of the Shakers in the old photos and wondered what they would think of modern day folks, with our cell phones and busy lives. “Slow down and live in today,” I could almost hear them say as they smiled gently at me from photographs taken so long ago.

In the next room, a video played on a large screen, and it related the story of the Shakers. A few visitors sat rapt as they watched the history of the Shakers at Canterbury and elsewhere unfold.

I was particularly enthralled with the next room where children’s toys and a very old child’s bed and crib took center stage. I gazed at the toys and thought about the many frightened, confused orphans or poverty-stricken children who came to the Canterbury Shakers, unsure of their welcome or what life held in store. Happily, they were loved and cherished and raised with gentle care; just watch the video section of Sister Gertrude Soule speaking about children to feel the Shakers’ love of “little ones” as she called youngsters who were raised among the Brothers and Sisters. (It was the custom for individual Shakers to take an assigned child under their wing rather like a second mother or father.)

Some buildings were not open on the weekday I visited, but I was happy to wander among the whitewashed, beautiful old buildings and to walk the roads and paths the Shakers once trod in their day-to-day lives. (Small lawn flags indicated which buildings were open for viewing.) I

History and traces of lives once led were everywhere I turned, but it was a very, very peaceful feeling. Nearby, the Creamery building was open and I stepped right into the history of farming. No one was in the large room and I had the place to myself (I must stress that this was a quiet, rainy pre-season day and normally there are tours and visitors enjoying the many features of the village). I gazed at everything, from the posters that explained the dairy industry at the village right down to the super-soft and smooth gold latch on the giant refrigeration wooden door. I marveled at the many hands of Shakers brothers and sisters who turned the latch to open the door as they carried out their chores.

There is no doubt the huge Dwelling House is one of the most eye-catching structures at Shaker Village. The building was constructed in 1793 and expanded several times. It reached its present size by 1837. It was here, on separate staircases, at gender-segregated tables and in areas for socializing, as well as in sleeping quarters, that the Shakers resided. (Men and women worked together, but intimate contact and marriage was against their belief system. Segregation was by gender. (Racial prejudices were not tolerated among the Shakers, who truly believed all were equal.) The building also housed a chapel; today the Dwelling House is open for tours and it is an unforgettable place and a must-do for any visitor.

The kitchen at Shaker Village is a vast place, once the location of hustle and bustle, day and evening. Feeding 100-plus Shakers at the height of the community meant big utensils, lots of food and big ovens and shelving. But this was no cafeteria, feed-em-and-get-em-out type of cooking and serving. The food prepared here was famed for its flavor – it was delicious, as well as healthful. The Shakers ate plain fare but it was seasoned accordingly and prepared artfully. (One such dish, Eldress Bertha Lindsay’s Rose Water Apple Pie, is famed and quite unique and tasty, for example.)

Used for demonstrations and on the tour, the kitchen is open for visitors. I found it a bit poignant that this space, once so busy, was now so still. It was as if Bertha or one of the other fine Shaker cooks has stepped out of the kitchen and would soon return. The stillness of the rooms and the stoves, now cold, that were once fired up so as to bake the breads and pastries, seemed to slumber, waiting too for the Shaker cooks to return.

I moved on and wandered from building to building, until I felt the rain start to fall in a light mist. I was determined to make it to the beautiful, large gardens, once the prize of the Shakers who tended them, before the rain became heavy.

I walked the path and there it was, the garden still tended each year by village staff and volunteers. At one time the garden was the salvation for the Shakers; food was expensive and hard to come by during the Depression and World War II years, and the garden provided much-needed food. Knowing the kindness and caring for others that the Shakers practiced, I imagined no neighbor or traveler in need of food was turned away empty-handed when that garden was burgeoning with fruits and vegetables.

Beyond the fields the woods beckoned. “Come, walk here,” they seemed to invite. I shook my head, knowing I would be drenched if I did not seek shelter.

Regrettably, I had an afternoon appointment, and I did not have time to wander to the Meetinghouse, which many visitors feel is the most spiritual and historically significant building at the village. It is very old, and has wonderful views of the field beyond.

I decided, since it was lunchtime, to eat my mid day meal at the Shaker Lunch Box in the large barn structure across the street. The counter helper greeted me with a smile and told me the soup for the day was chicken dumpling and the other hot food was chili. I chose a squash roll (another fine Shaker recipe!) and the chicken dumpling soup. Sitting at a wooden table, I took my time with my meal and relaxed in the peace and utter quiet of the special place.

My afternoon appointment meant I could not spend the entire day at Canterbury Shaker Village. But I planned to return, as I do each summer and fall.

Driving onto Shaker Road, I thought about Eldress Bertha, a woman I would have liked to know. I greatly admire her striving for perfection and her gentle kindness toward others. And I like the philosophy of the Shakers to do it right and with care that is so apparent in their buildings, stonewalls and their cuisine, but most of all in their spirituality.

I nodded a silent thank-you to the many Shakers who now rest in that big cemetery. I think they would be very pleased to know so many visitors find peace and quiet at Canterbury Shaker Village.

For information on Canterbury Shaker Village, visit www.shakers.org or call 603-783-9511. The village is open for tours and to the public with special events; call for admission and hours of operation.

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