NEW LEBANON — Visitors shook it off Sunday to remember the day when members of the Christian sect the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers, landed in the United States 243 years ago.
The Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon in New Lebanon celebrated the anniversary with free tours of the site.
The Shakers arrived in America on Aug. 6, 1774, to escape religious persecution in England, and while Watervliet, in Albany County, was the site of the first Shaker community in the country, New Lebanon was where the movement really grew, Shaker Museum tour guide Elise Gabriel said.
“They believed this was heaven on earth,” Gabriel said of the Shakers coming to New York. “They’re the longest living Utopian society.”
There are two living Shakers, both in their 60s, in the United States, who reside in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Gabriel said. These two Shakers hold meetings every Sunday that draw in hundreds of people each time.
“They are not taking any new members because [if] you think about it, what happens if something happens with the 60-year-old members, then these new people are left with everything,” Gabriel said. “They probably don’t want that to happen, so they’re probably just trying to preserve what is out there.”
The Landing Day celebration draws in many visitors because they want to know more about what the celebration is all about, Shaker Museum Historic Site Manager Colleen Henry said.
“I think it draws attention because it’s Landing Day,” Henry said. “We want to get groups in here to talk about the Shakers and the museum.”
The site is hosting an exhibit through Oct. 9 entitled “Break Every Yoke: Shakers, Gender Equality and Women’s Suffrage,” coinciding with the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in New York. The Shakers were interested in seeing equality for women, Henry said.
“Their social activities were designed to support that idea of gender equality,” Henry said. “It was great that they could play a part in that, and we certainly want to celebrate here.”
The Shakers were celibate, pacifists and progressive for their time because they believed in gender and race equality.
“The Shakers were known to free slaves,” Gabriel said. “There were various Shakers, when they converted over they were slave holders, so since that was against their beliefs they [the slaves] had to be released.”
Gabriel, who is doing her capstone project at The College of St. Rose in Albany about the Shakers, gave visitors a tour of the site. The North Family Shakers invented the seed packet, which helped to sustain them for 25 years until a former Shaker left the family and started a business selling seed packets.
“After that, they needed to do something else, so that’s when they started to get into furniture and different things like that,” Gabriel said. “They were not like the Amish — they were into innovations.”
In the site’s washroom, built in 1854, Gabriel said the Shakers also invented drying racks, which pulled out of the wall on tracks, and the commercial washing machine.
“They did bring their washing machine inventions to fairs to show them their invention, but they never put a patent on it,” Gabriel said. “That was their downfall.”
Judy Mappa, of Norwalk, Connecticut, came to the site specifically to celebrate the Shakers’ landing in America and has a fascination about all aspects of the Shakers’s story.
“I’ve been a Shaker enthusiast for 30 years,” Mappa said. “I’m very interested in anything that’s Shaker.”
While Mappa has learned a lot about the Shakers, she said she initially did not know that the Shakers first landed in Manhattan and stayed in the state for five years before moving to other parts of the country.
“I thought it was very informative,” Mappa said.
Phyllis and Bill Fix, of Niverville, had never been to the New Lebanon site before and both had been to the museum’s original location in Old Chatham.
“It sounded like a good thing to do for noontime,” Bill Fix said.
Phyllis Fix used older sewing machines growing up and seeing the items the Shakers used was nostalgic for her. Phyllis Fix also enjoyed seeing the other historic artifacts on display.
“It brings back memories,” Phyllis Fix said.
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.