Friday, July 28, 2006

The Last Shakers

The last four Shakers in the world are preparing for the end of the famous sect:

These are the last Shakers, living in the world's last active Shaker community, which has survived for 223 years in this idyllic and isolated hilltop village 35 miles northwest of Portland, Maine. Here, the four faithful live a life of ascetic simplicity and abide by the three C's: celibacy, confession of sin, and communalism. "The real misconception about the Shakers is that we're all dead," says one of the four, Brother Arnold Hadd, only half-jokingly.


While they pray for more converts, the Sabbathday Shakers - as pragmatic as they are pious - have been working to ensure that their legacy and their land will outlive them, should Shakerism die off. They're well aware that several dismantled New England Shaker villages were long ago subdivided into housing lots or turned into prisons. "We'd been very concerned," Hadd admits, "because our neighborhood has changed so radically in just a short period of time." The Shakers worry not only about encroaching suburban sprawl but rising costs like heat and their property taxes, which hit $24,432 this fiscal year. (The Shakers have never sought tax-exempt status as a religious group.)

So, five years ago, the Protestant monastic sect initiated a plan, put together by the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land, to sell preservation and conservation easements to two nonprofits, Maine Preservation and the New England Forestry Foundation. These two groups, along with eight other nonprofits and public agencies, are behind the national campaign to raise money to buy the restrictions - about $2.8 million in government grants and private donations has already come in, and they hope to net another $900,000 and conclude the deal by the end of September. The agreement would protect this pristine village of mostly whiteclapboard buildings and the 1,643 acres that straddle the town lines of New Gloucester, Maine, and Poland, Maine, from ever being developed or subdivided. "We can't put up a Wal-Mart. Or a housing development," Hadd says. "The land always has to remain for agricultural and forest purposes."

And by selling future development rights, the Shakers will be able to afford to maintain and repair their 18 historic structures, from the original 1794 Meetinghouse to a 1910 garage built to house the group's first car. Hadd won't divulge what it costs to run the village, but obviously a few million dollars would be a godsend. The Shakers get by largely by leasing 29 lots (on which sit lakeside cottages), about 1,000 acres of forest, 30 acres each of farmland and orchards, and a huge gravel pit. They run their enormous enterprise with help from six year-round and six seasonal employees. The Friends of the Shakers, a volunteer group with about 60 active members, makes semiannual visits to paint fences, stack firewood, and perform other tasks. "I'm not a Shaker and never could be, but when you go to that place you carry away a spirituality," says Judy McCaskey, a volunteer and campaign contributor who lives in Chicago.

Frankly, I was surprised that there were any left.

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