Massachusetts: Hancock Shaker Village Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This town was the third of nineteen Shaker religious communities established in New England, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. It was closed in 1960 and reopened in 1961 as a historic site, with twenty original buildings still standing.

Site Office

Hancock Shaker Village

P.O. Box 927

Pittsfield, MA 01202-0927

ph.: (800) 817-1137; (413) 443-0188

fax: (413) 447-9357

Web site: www.hancockshakervillage.org

e-mail: info@hancockshakervillage.org

The Hancock Shaker community in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts thrived as a nineteenth century American religious community worshiping God, accepting a celibate lifestyle emphasizing hard work, thrift, charity, and simplicity, and committed to equality of the sexes. Closed in 1960 because of declining membership, the Hancock Shaker Village reopened in 1961 as a living history museum dedicated to recounting the past events of the Shaker world to future generations.

Ann Lee and the Shakers

In 1747 in Manchester, England, James and Jane Wardley created a religious society based on the Quaker values of meekness, simplicity, and pacifism and the French Camisard practices of seizures, trances, and dancing. Their members achieved religious enlightenment from visions and revelations. Because dancing was an important feature of this religious movement’s worship service, outsiders called the devotees Shaking Quakers and later Shakers.

In 1758, Ann Lee joined the Shaker religious movement. She married Abraham Standley, as requested by her parents, and gave birth to four children who all died in infancy. In prayer Ann Lee searched for answers to explain the loss of her children, which she interpreted to be a sign of God’s displeasure. Revelations that she believed came from God instructed her that God was both male and female; that original sin was sex used for self-gratification, costing humankind purity and righteousness; and that men and women should be treated equally.

Ann Lee’s religious devotion led to her persecution in England and imprisonment there on charges of blasphemy. While she was imprisoned, God informed Ann that she was to leave England for the American colonies, where she could practice the faith and gather new members. In 1774 Ann Lee, her husband, her brother, and six other followers sailed from Liverpool and landed in New York City. The members separated for a year and earned money before reuniting in Watervliet near Albany, New York. There, Ann Lee gained converts from among members of the New Light Baptists who were disillusioned when the millennium promised in Revelation failed to occur.

The Founding of Hancock

In 1783, while on a tour in Pittsfield preaching the Shaker faith, Ann Lee and her followers were attacked; they found safety in the Hancock, Massachusetts, home of Daniel Goodrich, Sr. Although fined twenty dollars for disturbing the peace and told to leave Massachusetts, Ann Lee remained and encouraged the Goodrich, Deming, and Talcott families to form a Shaker community in Hancock. In 1784 these families laid the foundation for the first meetinghouse and began the consecration of their possessions and lands to the Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers. Although the Hancock Shaker community was nurtured by “Mother” Ann Lee, Hancock was not officially established as a Shaker settlement until 1790, when Calvin Harlow was appointed bishop for Hancock and Tyringham, Massachusetts, and Enfield, Connecticut, and leader of the Hancock brethren. Sarah Harrison was appointed leader of the Hancock sisters.

Hancock’s first years were difficult ones for these Shaker farmers, who saw their crops destroyed by frost, pestilence, and drought. Fires destroyed many of their buildings. Membership declined due to deaths caused by fever epidemics and departing members disillusioned with Shaker living, some of whom demanded financial compensation for the land and possessions they had originally donated. However, perseverance and a strong faith eventually turned the community around. By 1803 the Hancock Shakers numbered 142 people, 76 of whom were full church members living on and working 2,000 acres of farmland, growing rye, buckwheat, oats, and hayseed; raising Holstein cattle; and mining iron ore. A new meetinghouse was built along with a gristmill, sawmills, and carding and pulling mills. Economic prosperity was increased by the selling of flat-sided brooms and the packaging and selling on consignment of sixty-nine varieties of seeds from New York to the Chesapeake Bay area.

In 1829 the Hancock Shaker community consisted of six families, with more than 270 members distributed among three orders: the Novitiate Order of new members who resided for a trial period or until they had freed themselves from their entanglements with worldly problems (an East Family, 1792-1911, and a South Family, 1800-1849); the Junior Order of single members who had never been married and those who still wanted some control over their financial and business concerns (a West Family, 1792-1867, and a Second Family, 1792-1920); and the Senior Order of those who had made the total commitment to the Shaker faith, relinquishing all possessions of land, money, and personal family ties (Church Family, 1790-1960, and North Family, 1822-1869). Each family was jointly governed by two elders and two eldresses.

Revival and Decline

From the 1830’s to the 1850’s, the Shaker religion went through a period of spiritual revival where members, in returning to the teachings of Mother Ann, underwent mystical experiences. Hancock, renamed the City of Peace, had a revival site located about two miles north of the Hancock property at a mountain named Sinai. There, a fountain stone was placed and engraved with the words “written and placed here by the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, The Lord’s Stone erected upon this Mt. Sinai, May 4, 1843.” Fasting, confession, and silent prayer preceded these semiannual pilgrimages to Sinai where Hancock Shakers spoke in tongues, acted out pantomimes, and had the visitation of spirits that transmitted religious communications into written and pictorial form through Shaker members. During one such episode in 1854, Hancock sister Hannah Harrison Cohoon drew the “Tree of Life.” The drawing was a draft of a beautiful tree bearing fruit penciled on a large sheet of white paper. The spirit showed Sister Hannah the details concerning leaves, fruit, and colors to be used. Cohoon believed the tree represented a living spirit bearing good fruits–in other words, the Shaker church and its members.

Unfortunately for the Hancock settlement and the Shakers in general, potential members were turned off by their hyper-spiritualism, and Shakers themselves left the religion when their revival led elders to demand that members bow to them and acknowledge their superiority. Declining membership led to the closure of the South Family in 1849, leaving a Hancock membership of just 58 brethren and 135 sisters.

Shaker pacificism during the Civil War further alienated potential members. The West and North families were dissolved in 1867 and 1869, respectively, leaving only three families in 1870, with a total of ninety-eight members. Continuing membership declines led the Hancock Shakers to offer apprenticeships to outsiders, who helped them to cultivate one thousand acres for growing corn, oats, barley, and wheat; to raise cattle; and to produce brooms, tubs, pails, swifts, a “Hancock” chair, and applesauce for sale. In the hope of attracting new members, the Shakers lifted some severe restrictions, allowing members to plant flower gardens, play musical instruments, travel, have pets, use wallpaper, paint china, frame pictures, and have house plants. Membership still declined.

In 1893 the Bishopric of Hancock was abolished and the Hancock Shakers placed under the ministry of the New Lebanon (New York) Shakers. Further membership declines led to the closing of the East Family in 1911. In 1948 the New Lebanon Shaker community closed, and its members were moved to the Hancock site. The last Hancock brother, Ricardo Belden, died in 1958, leaving just three sisters, Eldress Fannie Estabrook and Sisters Mary Frances Dahm and Adeline Patterson. The Shaker Central Ministry, now in Canterbury, New Hampshire, decided to close the Hancock settlement in 1960.

Historic Site

Hancock’s last trustee, Shaker Frances Hall, actually began the liquidation of the Hancock Shaker site in the 1940’s by selling land and buildings or tearing down buildings too old to repair in order to lighten the tax burden. In 1959, 550 acres of Hancock woodland was sold to the state of Massachusetts, to be added to the Pittsfield State Forest in exchange for state maintenance of the Hancock Shaker cemetery. At the time of the 1960 Hancock closure, the property consisted of 974 acres, eleven major buildings, and ten lesser structures. The Hancock property was sold for $125,000 to the Hancock Shaker Village Steering Committee, headed by Laurence and Amy Bess Miller. Eldress Fannie Estabrook, who died in 1960 at age ninety, was the last Shaker buried in the Hancock graveyard. The two remaining sisters were cared for in Pittsfield. Today Hancock Shaker Village is a living museum, open to the public from April to October. The site offers educational programs, workshops, a research library, a publications program, replica reproductions, craft demonstrations, and special events.

Hancock Buildings and Inventions

Shaker works were prized and valued because they were unadorned, functional, and well made, and displayed a beauty and simplicity that reflected a harmony of work and spirit. Hancock Elders and furniture makers Thomas Damon and Grove Wright constructed 245 cupboards with 369 drawers in the brick dwelling house. Shakers were known for their sense of order and neatness. Brother Damon was also known for the manufacture of the Shaker “table swift,” which was used for winding skeins of yarn into balls. When not in use, the “swift” looks like a collapsible folding umbrella. Hancock Shakers developed an adjustable wooden transom for the doors to let air flow though the dwelling house; they also designed a table with a drawer that could be opened from either end and long benches for meeting and dining rooms. Other items attributed to Hancock Shakers include washstands with swinging platforms below them to hold a slop jar or the wastewater from the pitcher and bowl above; close stools that were indoor privies, with tin pipes vented to let odors escape; sliding cupboards (dumbwaiters); and efficient wood-burning stoves. The last Hancock brother, Ricardo Belden, was a noted clock maker.

Among the Hancock Shaker buildings, the most notable structure evidencing Shaker ingenuity was the three-story, round, stone barn constructed in 1826. This structure was built to house fifty head of dairy cattle in a ring of circular stalls to promote efficiency in milking, feeding, cleaning, and the storage of hay. The top floor was used for storing hay and grain. The middle floor housed the cows, with trap doors in the floor to allow manure to be shoveled into the lower pit and hauled away for fertilizer. Other original buildings restored at the Hancock site and open for a tour are the Machine Shop and Laundry (1790), the Meeting House brought from Shirley settlement in 1962 (1792), the Trustee’s Office (1800), the Ministry Wash House (1810), the School House (1815), the Brethren Shop (1820), the Sister Shop (1820), the Dwelling House (1830), the Barn and Tan House (1835), the Horse Barn (1850), the Cattle and Equipment Shop (1865), the Ministry Shop (1874-1875), the Poultry House (1878), and the Carriage House (1890).

For Further Information
  • Andrews, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers. New York: Dover, 1963. Written while Hancock was still one of three active Shaker settlements.
  • Butler, Linda, and June Sprigg. Inner Light: The Shaker Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Fifty-eight photographs of Shaker creations from furniture to boxes and bonnets to songbooks.
  • Morse, Flo. The Shakers and the World’s People. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1980. A good narrative history about the Shaker experience.
  • Ott, John Harlow. Hancock Shaker Village: A Guidebook and History. Shaker Community, 1976. Both a written and a visual record of the Hancock Shaker community.
  • Pearson, Elmer, Julia Neal, and Walter Muir Whitehill. The Shaker Image. Boston: New York Graphic Society and Shaker Community, 1974. More than 200 photographs with text about the Shakers from 1850 to 1920.
  • Sprigg, June. By Shaker Hands. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. An illustrated catalog of Shaker inventions written by the then curator of the Hancock Shaker museum.
  • _______. Shaker Design. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1986. Catalog for a touring Shaker exhibit of furniture, household objects, tools and equipment, textiles and textile equipment, and graphics.
  • Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A detailed history about the Shaker movement with commentary about their future ability to survive.
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