Hancock Shaker Village, Mass.—When you first see the village, sleeping on the flank of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, you think of impossibly perfect places: Shangri-La, Brigadoon, Moon River. You think of the world the way it ought to be: everything clean, orderly and light, with everyone working together. You think of heaven on Earth, which would sit just right with the people who lived here at Hancock Shaker Village.
They were the Shakers, members of a radical religious sect who came to America from England in 1774. Though the religion, which is rooted in Christianity, never caught on widely, its members' achievements were many. The flat broom and the seed packet are widely considered to have been Shaker inventions. Their now highly prized ladder-back chairs, burnished oval boxes and trustworthy woven baskets dull the distinction between art and craft. At needful times, a haunting Shaker song (above left) might come to mind, borrowed by Aaron Copland in "Appalachian Spring."
"Put your hands to work and your hearts to God," Mother Ann Lee, the society's founder, told her people. They happily followed the injunction, breeding livestock, cultivating medicinal herbs and seeds, weaving baskets, building furniture, canning produce. Everything they made was of the best quality, much in demand when Shaker peddlers took them to market.
Fortunately, many of their 19 "valleys of love and delight" have endured as museums. These are scattered widely across New England and the Midwest, except near the New York-Massachusetts border, about 150 miles north of New York City and 135 miles west of Boston. Early Shakers settled in an arc between Albany, N.Y., and Pittsfield, Mass., miraculously still unspoiled, rural and green. There, three venerable Shaker sites cluster: beautifully restored Hancock Shaker Village; the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, just west across the state line in New York; and the abandoned headquarters of the ministry at New Lebanon, N.Y., also known as Mount Lebanon.
In May I spent three days exploring this trio, tucked in one of the loveliest corners of New England. Besides showcasing the exquisite work of Shaker hands and telling their story, they speak eloquently of the impossible dream these people tried to realize.
Echoes of the past
Just east of the New York state line, Berkshire County, Mass., has long been a desirable getaway for well-heeled Bostonians and New Yorkers. They send their kids to summer camp and prep school here and rent cottages close to the music at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in Lenox, Mass., and the art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. When they want sushi or CDs, they go to Great Barrington, Mass., a chicly reconstituted New England mercantile town with plenty of good places to stay.
When I went to the Berkshires, I was smitten by Chatham, N.Y., about 25 miles northwest, in slower, less gentrified Columbia County, N.Y. There, an influx of urbanites, which intensified after Sept. 11, has brought stylish restaurants and cafes to a countryside that still speaks of simple Shaker pleasures.
Every gift shop in the neighborhood sells Shaker-inspired oval boxes, linen dish towels and "Tree of Life" postcards. Seemingly every B&B, on hilltop or in hollow, alongside winding country roads, has Shaker peg rails, candle stands and woodwork painted in the teal blue and spring green Shaker palette. In antiques stores you might find old ladder-back chairs, waiting for sanding and varnish to recall their Shaker designers, who abjured decoration for its own sake but saw the smile of the creator in finely crafted, useful things.
I stayed for three nights at the Inn at Silver Maple Farm in the Berkshire foothills in East Chatham, N.Y. There, an old white barn has been handsomely transformed into a rambling inn with nine rooms, two suites and a high-ceilinged great room, where Ross and Nancy Audino serve breakfast. The inn, opened in 1996, looks fresh and new inside, with exposed beams and polished pine floors. But the Audinos, expatriate New Yorkers, just bought the place and are feeling their way into the bed-and-breakfast business. To it they bring undemanding friendliness and real New York bagels, imported from that premier emporium, H&H Bagels on New York City's Upper West Side.
My room, at the rear of the main building, mixed shabby chic with the spartan Shaker style. It had a blue cupboard, bench, rag rug and divine four-poster queen-sized bed. There were modern conveniences, such as a phone, TV and private bath, to make it a comfortable nest.
The inn is on New York Route 295, lined with farms. When you drive on back roads like this one, there is little to break the bucolic spell. I missed my turnoff because it was so pleasant to keep driving, drinking in the scenery.
That's how I discovered Chatham. I was headed to the Shaker Museum and Library, but instead of veering north on the old Albany Turnpike, I kept going on 295 until I found myself in the center of town, really just one long block of stores with a working pendulum clock tower that dates to the early 1870s on one end and an abandoned inn on the other, the oldest building in Chatham, dating from 1811.
Dignified brick storefronts on Main Street bespeak the town's prominence as a late 19th century railroad hub, and you can see a first-run movie for $3.50 at the Crandell Theatre, owned and operated by the same family since the '50s. I bought a pair of clogs at Browns Emporium and a paperback mystery at the Chatham Bookstore: "A Simple Shaker Murder," by Deborah Woodworth, featuring a bonneted Shaker sister as the novel's unlikely gumshoe.
My route to the Shaker Museum and Library along the old road that linked Boston to Albany -- beautiful New York Columbia County Highway 13 and Shaker Museum Road -- is high on my list of classic New England drives. You know, with spotted cows, rolling hills, snowball bushes. But the flock of crossbred East Frisian sheep, 1,200 strong, nibbling in pastures across the road from the Shaker Museum and Library was a little unusual.
They belong to the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., the largest sheep dairy in the country, which sends high-grade cheese and yogurt to gourmet groceries. I got there before then-farm manager Ken Kleinpeter started milking. Annie and Mickie, Kleinpeter's sheep-savvy border collies, were at his heels as he took me through the office, decorated with Shaker furniture, woodwork and quilts. Then he showed me the dairy's authentic Shaker barn, moved to Old Chatham from Watervliet, N.Y., near Albany, the first home of the Shaker church in America. The two-level barn is a perfect simple gift, the color of dried cherries, with a made-by-hand look and no plaques or tour guides to distract from its beauty.
Across the road from the sheep farm is the Shaker Museum and Library, which houses a collection of 18,500 authentic Shaker artifacts in a U-shaped complex. It gives visitors the chance to inspect some of the sect's most beautiful creations -- elegant drop-leaf tables, sewing desks, spinning wheels; buckets, baskets, oval boxes and brooms; here and there, a tape-backed chair, with a gracefulness derived from "the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it," as Thomas Merton, an author and Trappist monk, wrote. Even such rudimentary Shaker tools as shovels and carding combs have a glow about them.
John S. Williams Sr., a local gentleman farmer who started the collection in the 1930s, had a special interest in Shaker machinery and technology, little-appreciated aspects of the Shaker lifestyle. Unlike the old-fashioned Amish people, Shakers embraced newfangled things that made work more efficient -- electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, automobiles. Then, too, the industrious and ingenious Shakers came up with their own inventions, many of which are displayed at the museum: an improved Shaker washing machine made in 1876, tapered ladders that could insert easily into the top branches of fruit trees at harvest time, chairs with buttons set into the base of each leg so people can tilt back in them.