Community festivities at the Shaker Museum in New Lebanon

The Shakers who lived at Mount Lebanon ran a seed business, selling in bulk to local farmers, starting around 1790. They are credited with inventing the seed packet. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Behold! New Lebanon (BNL) has transferred its programming to the National Landmark Shaker Museum site at Mount Lebanon. BNL is a living museum of contemporary rural American living, with programs and demonstrations conducted by the actual people of New Lebanon. The Shaker Museum has a campus at Mount Lebanon and another in Old Chatham, and its collection of more than 56,000 Shaker items is the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. The Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon will open its season with a grand Community Event on Saturday, May 26, featuring live music, children’s activities, and tours and hikes on the North Family grounds, where the utopian project throve from 1787 to 1947. 

The United Society of Believers emigrated from Manchester, England in 1774 for the purpose of establishing a working society committed to communal living, gender and racial equality, pacifism, celibacy and general separation from the world. The vast tract of land hugging Mount Lebanon was organized not only for agricultural use, but also to allow the community members a high degree of self-sufficiency.

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“They did everything,” says Shawna Fitzsimmons, director of operations at the Shaker Museum. “They were polymath: entrepreneurs, artists, dancers, engineers and they had a booming seed industry. They were marketers. They invented the seed packet! They ran the largest communal utopian society. In full swing, there were approximately 600 residents here.” The movement grew in the 19th century, developing 23 communities in the US with nearly 6,000 members living and working and worshiping together.

But not procreating. That celibacy stipulation prevented growth through childbearing. “That they didn’t have children is misconceived,” says Fitzsimmons. “It’s viewed by the public as a negative, but in that era it was an empowering option for women who didn’t see the path [of motherhood] for themselves. They could come here and become businesswomen, and weren’t tied to traditional family expectations. They used that energy in their dancing and their work ethic. ‘Hands to work; hearts to God,’ that’s their motto.”

In the small gift shop, she points out a wooden chute hanging down from the ceiling. Explaining that the building was once the granary, she describes how grain would be poured through the chute into cloth bags. “This is [cabinetmaker] Peter Forward’s work,” she says, turning to pick up a classic Shaker oval box made of bird’s-eye maple. “He makes Shaker replica items. We also sell Shaker goods from Sabbath Day Lake in Maine, where there are only two Shakers still living – and still working.”

Coordinating with executive director Lacy Schutz, Fitzsimmons works to create educational programs and accurately restore the site’s buildings and grounds. “Even the landscaping: We’re looking at clearing trees because this was farmland, and they never would have allowed the trees to grow.”

“When the community left,” says Fitzsimmons, “John Williams started the Museum in Old Chatham in his barn. It’s where our collection is now stored, our administrative offices are located and also the Emma B. King Shaker Library is housed. We took over the stewardship of this site in 2005, and we run events out of both campuses. Here at the North House, we’re in the process of expanding the herb garden with a volunteer crew. We want to get our herb garden to where we’re collecting seeds, too.

“We’re about to launch self-guided tours. We have new booklets, and we’re finishing up the signage. The Visitor Center is open Friday through Monday; the site is open year-round, but access to the buildings is by guided tour only. We’re seeking funding to expand our north pastures trail.”

As a not-for- profit organization, the Museum relies on donations and grants to operate. A massive barn sustained a fire and was reduced to nothing but huge stone walls. Simply stabilizing them was costly; Fitzsimmons says that complete restoration is a long way into the future.

The inclusion of Behold! New Lebanon Living Museum programming on the North House campus is seen by both entities as creating a stronger relationship, with expanded educational opportunities for the community. “Visits to the North Family site have always been one of the most popular attractions of our programming, and for good reason,” said Ruth J. Abram, founder and CEO of Behold! Abram was also the founding president of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum. “Today’s rural guides embody the spirit, values and talent of the original Shakers. The North Family site shines a light on those values.”

The Shaker Museum Community Event will take place on Saturday, May 26 from 1 to 3 p.m. The Dolan’s Dogs food truck will be on hand to satisfy hungry visitors, offering hotdogs, hamburgers or grilled cheese, plus a side and a beverage for $12 on the day of the event ($10 meal ticket in advance). A light dessert will be offered for free. The museum’s Visitor Center will be open, and a ten-percent-off in-store discount is being offered for all attendees who want to take home something to commemorate their adventure into Shaker life.

Before the festivities begin, cyclists participating in the NL200 Tour d’Manure will pedal through the bucolic countryside to visit local farms and end at the Mount Lebanon site. The escorted bike ride takes place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Contact Ted Salem at gtvnl@gmail.com for information about the Tour.

Shaker Museum Community Event, Saturday, May 26, 1-3 p.m., free admission, meal tickets $10/$12, Historic Mount Lebanon Site, 202 Shaker Road, New Lebanon; (518) 794-9100, extension 220, www.shakerml.org.

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