Sidebar 12: Shaker Industry - David Starbuck

The Shakers, or "The United Society of Believers in Christ's First and Second Appearing," provide the best example of the pervasiveness of rural industries throughout America. This utopian movement of Christian believers arose in Manchester, England, in 1747. The first Shakers journeyed to the American colonies in 1774 where they subsequently established nineteen small communities that are often portrayed as an agrarian reaction against nineteenth-century urban life and its reputed vices. The Shakers' efforts to escape the lifestyle of the mainstream culture, while devoting themselves wholly to the service of God, resulted in their developing dozens of industries at every community. In doing so, they ultimately achieved a very high level of economic independence and self-sufficiency.

In 1977 I commenced a long-term project at one of these Shaker villages, in Canterbury, New Hampshire, where three Shakers were still very much alive. One aspect of this work involved documenting all of the archaeological sites that dot the three thousand acres of the Shaker-modified landscape. Because this rural society had produced so much maple sugar, seeds, field crops, honey, beef, pork, dairy products, apples, and more, I did not immediately realize the importance of the industrial sites to the Shaker experience. However, after twenty-five years of recording headraces, dams, mill foundations, wheelpits, spillways, trash racks, ditches, and dumps, I have to acknowledge that the Canterbury Shakers were intrepid industrialists who operated no fewer than four blacksmith shops, eighteen mills, and a host of craft shops. They did woodworking, wheelmaking, shoemaking, spinning, weaving, sewing, and printing, and typically each Shaker learned more than one trade to ensure that no industry would come to an end with the passing of a member.

Shaker industry was highly respected and innovative, as the members made products of considerable quality. The Shakers researched business decisions well, accumulating equipment catalogs and magazines like Scientific American to ensure that their purchases of turbines and related supplies would meet their needs. The desire to power many industries simultaneously resulted in the creation of a mill system that snaked for several miles across a landscape that gently sloped downhill, with water continuously reused as it collected in mill ponds, flowed through headraces, and into wheelpits where it powered water wheels and turbines. The students exposing and mapping these remains discovered that the ground surface was littered with machine parts, abandoned equipment, spent fuel, and unfinished products, and the Shakers helped me to realize more clearly than ever just how integral industry is to every rural setting.