June 27, 2014

At Hancock Shaker Village: Men's Work

When you step out of the visitors center at Hancock Shaker Village, you are immediately aware that this had been a farming community, and that the tradition has been carried on by the museum staff and volunteers. As I explained in my last post on women's work, labor at the village was divided into those jobs done by women, and those by men. This is not very different at all from the culture at large, even through most of the 20th century. As in "the World", men did the hard work of farming.

The agricultural implements of the 19th century are certainly different from those of today which are run with internal combustion engines. This wagon has some kind of rotating floor and I'm not sure of its purpose, but I love the way it looks.

This moving floor is part of a horse treadmill, or "tread power". The Shakers used this treadmill to provide power for grain threshing, sawing wood, and for other large farm machinery. Smaller treadmills for small animals such as sheep were used to power butter churns, cream separators, and other small machinery. (from the museum label) Treadmills are an ancient technology, and I did find a modern treadmill for electricity generation: a farmer in Ireland developed one for his cows.

This is a room in the hired men's house. When the number of men converts in the community dropped in the mid 19th century, the Shakers had to hire from outside in order to do the work necessary to maintain the land and buildings. Workers lived here, separately from the community, until 1947.

I find the proportions of this building, an ice house, very satisfying. It is built into a hill, so you are seeing only its upper half. This is the south facing side; the tallest wall is the one facing north, which would keep the building cooler. A large quantity of food was stored here to keep it fresh.

Two hundred tons of ice were stored in this room and another small one above. If you enlarge the photo you'll see slots in the brick wall to enable the cold air to flow into the storage areas. I thought the walls of this room were very beautiful, with the diagonal boards and the open grid. Ice was used until the Shakers switched to mechanical refrigeration in the early 20th century.

Shaker Brothers made shoes for the community into the 1800s. This bench was made in the 1840s at the New Lebanon, NY, community.

Basketmaking was one activity that women also took part in. The men prepared the splints for weaving from ash logs and made the heavy work baskets, but women would make the most delicate ones.

The woodworking shop was in a barn that had been a tannery at one time. There were very large workbenches on view that had vices attached and drawers for storage. According to the museum description:
Shaker cabinetmakers were driven by the necessity of creating practical storage spaces that reflected the gospel simplicity required by their religion. Their methods of joinery were similar to those used by their neighbors, yet their designs and lack of ornamental elements were decidedly not of "the World". 

Beautiful, useful cabinets hold tools for woodworking.

Finally, there is the machine shop, housed in a large building, in half of which was the laundry, run by women. For some reason I find machine tools fascinating; I wrote about a machine tool museum in Vermont, The American Precision Museum, a couple of years ago. I suppose it's part of my visual interest in agricultural machinery, which provides me images for my paintings, because I don't like or trust power tools. In this shop, saws and drills and lathes were run by pulleys and belts powered by water.

Underneath the floor was a water turbine (earlier a water wheel) that was powered with water flowing through an underground channel from a reservoir north of the building. When I visited this building, I was lucky in having a knowledgeable docent who turned on the power; it was quite amazing to see how strong the water was. It then flowed out under fields, in a stone lined aqueduct of sorts, to a wooded area some distance away.

Upstairs was a drill press that had been operated with water power. The belts are elegant linear elements alongside the curves of the machine.

I thought I'd share this very touching photograph with you. It is a portrait of Brother Ricardo Belden, taken sometime around 1953. He was the last of the Hancock Brethren . He worked in this clock shop until his death in 1958. After visiting the Hancock Shaker Village, I felt that the life here had great value to its members, but with no childbearing and no connection to a major religion, I suppose it was inevitable that it couldn't sustain itself.

It was very moving to walk among the buildings and see the artifacts of a now vanished community, artifacts of utility and beauty. This simple wheelbarrow, made wholly of wood, resting among many other objects on the upper floors of the machine shop, touches my heart as I think of the bent backs moving the loaded tray, just as I do now with my red metal one.

Previous posts on the Hancock Shaker Village:
The Shakers: A Community of Faith and Work
At Hancock Shaker Village: Women's Work


  1. Nice post.
    Carries the peace and calm a bit further.

    1. You're very welcome, JBS, I'm glad you liked the post.

    2. I liked it a lot.
      Did they mention, during your visit, anything about a Shaker sister having invented the circular saw in the second quarter of the 19th-century?
      I don't doubt that it is true.
      The Shaker chairs I have had the privilege of restoring showed machine-tool marks, albeit perfect machine-tool marks, everywhere, and they used them on the cutting edge, if I may risk the pun, of cabinetmaking technology. The slats in the chair-backs are 1/8"-thin, with perfect power-planer marks, and 1/16th-inch radiused edges, done with a power router, which they did have, powered by water.
      The stretchers in the undercarriages were likewise perfect, their 1/2-inch dowel tenons tapering to 9/16" swells in the centers of the stretchers. That's a 1/32" taper!
      "Hands to work - hearts to God"

    3. Yes, the docent did talk about the circular saw, but said it was likely just one kind of saw and that it is not certain that it can be credited to a Shaker.

      That's amazing about the precision and quality of the Shaker woodworking. Thanks for this information.