May 27, 1988

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Shakers and Movers


Bill Treichler

Mrs. Betty Rice of Perry, New York, spoke and showed slides about the Shaker religious communities in this country and particularly about the Shakers of Groveland, the community at Sonyea, New York, to the audience at The Crooked Lake Historical Society's Saturday afternoon, May 14th, meeting at the Hammondsport Central School.

A student of the Shaker movement whose own master's thesis subject was "How Innovative and Opportune were the Shakers in Their Medical Care", Mrs. Rice outlined the beginning and expansion of the group who called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. They came to be known, at first derisively, as the Shaking Quakers because of their form of group dancing and because they grew out of the English Quakers. Later they came to be known simply as the Shakers and adopted the term themselves.

The leading personality of the group was Ann Lee (1736-1784). Born into a working-class family in Manchester, England, she grew up illiterate. As a young woman while still in England she was influenced by James and Jane Wardley and joined their group. She defied the Church of England and finally left for this country. On August 6, 1774, she arrived in New York City. Two years later in 1776 the first Shaker setlement was made at Watervliet near Albany, New York. From there the movement grew until at one time there were Shaker communities in seven states.

The Shakers' religious beliefs included the concept of the duality of the Deity: Father and Mother God. Consistent with this was their belief in the equality of the sexes. They were a communitarian sect that believed in equality of property and equality of labor. They shunned show and vanity and in their architecture and crafts developed a functional style that has outlasted their communities.

In 1826 a Shaker group began a settlement at Sodus Bay that became known as Alasa Farms. Ten years later these Shakers had to leave when their property was taken from them by a group of canal promoters who wanted to build a barge canal from the Erie Canal at Lyons to Lake Ontario.

The Shakers then bought property near Williamsburgh in Groveland and moved there in 1836. One hundred and twenty five people moved by sleighs and wagons to their new site where they built two villages, the east house group and the west house group, at a location the Indians had called Sonyea.

One attraction of their new location was the abundance of walnut trees growing there which they could use for furniture manufacture. They made chests and cabinets from the walnut lumber and even shipped some lumber back to the larger Shaker community at New Lebanon. In addition to making furniture at Sonyea they made spinning wheels, swifts and smaller items like rug beaters and buggy whips. They made furniture, tools and appliances for their own use and to sell. They also grew vegetable seeds for raised sheep and cattle at Sonyea.

The Shaker movement went into decline and eventually the Sonyea property was sold in 1893. The 24 remaining community members moved back to Watervliet. Today only three or four Shakers remain in this country but their marvelous tradition of craftsmanship will remain always as a testimony to their ideals.

Mrs. Rice had many beautiful pictures of Shaker buildings, furniture, tools and apparel. The office building from the East Village at Sonyea has been moved to the Genesee Village Museum near Mumford and can be seen there.

Carol and David Edsall were hosts for the afternoon event.

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