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A visit to the world of the Shaker craftsman

When the morning light casts misty shadows on the surrounding hills, it is not hard to see why the Shakers called Hancock "The City of Peace." To wander through the austere little buildings and along the regimentally straight rows of apple trees and herb gardens is akin to stepping into the tranquil, well-ordered little world of a folk-art painting.

A thriving community of Shakers once lived here, a religious sect that labored under the credo "put your hands to work and your hearts to God." Today no Shakers remain in Hancock, but many hands are still at work here producing the type of furniture, tinware, brooms, boxes, and textiles the community excelled in.

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The village, nestled in the Berkshires just three miles from the New York border, has been a museum since 1961. Tourists, scholars, and craftspeople come here to learn more about the innovative Shakers who followed Mother Ann Lee from England in 1774 to settle in upstate New York. At their peak in the 1840s there were about 6,000 Shakers scattered in several villages stretching from Maine to Kentucky. Today fewer than a dozen remain, all of them women, at Sabbathday Lake in Maine and in Canterbury, N.H.

But with the religion's demise has come an ever-growing regard for Shaker craftsmanship, fired as it was by a belief that a perfectly made chair or cabinet was a step toward spiritual perfection. And their disdain for useless ornamentation is what makes the simple lines of their furniture so appealing to modern eyes schooled to appreciate beauty in functionalism.

Here in Hancock the Shaker legacy -- a pride in craftsmanship that elevates utility to a fine art -- lives on in the workshops, craft demonstrations, festivals, and special programs that are in continuous swing from May until November.

On my first visit to Hancock I went thinking I could get a good sense of what the village workshops encompassed. What I found is that several months could easily be spent sampling the offerings. For example, just under the topic of herbs one could learn about herb cookery, wreathmaking, finding and using wild herbs, and making fragrant sachets and potpourris.

Other topics encompass 19th-century farming techniques, tinsmithing, broommaking, spinning, printing, cooking, and historical woodworking. All take place in the same setting where the Shakers performed them, and with the very tools they might have used.

For example, a 19th-century carpenter walking into the workshop of village cabinetmaker Joel Seaman would have no trouble going right to work. Located in the former tannery, it is outfitted with the best of 1840 equipment -- two massive workbenches occupying the center, a treadle lathe, and a saw powered by a water turbine located under the building. Amid the hand-hewn beams and rough, wide pine floors his assortment of works in progress -- candle stands, ladder-back chairs, a lectern, beautiful sewing boxes made of bird's-eye maple -- look very much at home.

On my second visit to Hancock, I spent an informative morning in Joel's workshop as he conducted one of the several furnituremaking demonstrations that the village offers each year. Roughly half of the small group was interested in practicing historical woodworking; the others, myself included, just wanted a better appreciation of it.

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Mr. Seaman began by telling us that during the 19th century the Shakers were ahead technologically, but behind stylistically in what they made. That explains the reason why Shaker furniture, even some produced during this century , is difficult to distinguish from 18th-century American antiques. There are candle stands with Queen Anne "snake" feet and the traditional New England blanket chests, some with drawers beneath. The most famous and most reproduced Shaker item, the slat back, or ladder-back chair, is a plainer version of those the Pilgrims used.

What does make a Shaker chair unique, however, is that many of them had seats fashioned out of colored canvas strips woven in variations of a checkerboard pattern -- a more comfortable and durable alternative to the usual rush or cane seats. Among the workshops Joel conducts is one in which participants can learn this relatively simple process.

That morning, however, Mr. Seaman spent explaining and demonstrating how early tools were used to construct the furniture of a less mechanized age, processes that took more time, but invariably produced a better product. One of the first things we learned is that because wood has a tendency to move over the years, furniture made with unseasoned lumber or with the wood grain going in the wrong direction will warp and split apart. The Shakers were ever-mindful of this and took great pains to prevent it.

Early methods of joining wood such as dovetailing, a process in which wood ends are fitted together in fan-shaped grooves, were part of the steps Shaker cabinetmakers used to control harmful wood movement. By using a few deft movements of marking and sawing, Joel showed us how he dovetails wood together to create the rectangular shaped sewing boxes that were a Shaker specialty. Another Shaker innovation was the peg rack on which hung chairs, brooms, coats, or anything else the fastidious community wanted to get off the floor. Joel, who makes reproductions of these racks for sale in the visitor's center, demonstrated how he "turns" a peg by use of the treadle lathe. As he pumped the treadle with his foot, a pulley set in motion a rapidly turning block of wood. By holding a cisel to the wood, curls of wood flew out leaving behind a beautifully shaped peg.

This fall the museum will sell products made by Joel and other craftsmen on a large scale through the new Shaker Community Industries program featuring both production and custom items. The village's renovated 1910 horse barn houses four levels of carpentry shops and a showroom from which customers can place orders.

But furnituremaking is only one of the historical crafts currently in revival at Hancock. Stopping in at Charlie Harwell's shop one day, I found the tinsmith at work shaping a sheet of tin-plated steel (pure tin is too expensive and melts too quickly) into a candle mold. This is done, he told me, by bending the supple metal around a stake and hammering it with a wooden or rawhide mallet into the desired shape.

"The Shakers made an endless variety of items out of tin, but I make only about 50," the tinsmith explained. Among those are a gleaming array of kitchen utensils -- his bread pans are small works of art -- that are used in the village's cooking workshops and demonstrations.

Mr. Hartwell estimates that there are probably no more than 12 other professional tinsmiths in existence, but knows from the response to the two workshops he gives a year (the next is on Oct. 18) that there is a growing number of hobbyists. During the workshops participants try their hands at the tinsmithing, learning about the authentic tools and machinery and a bit about the history of the craft. At the end of a day-long session they will have made at least one item.

The neat wooden building, painted a mellow gold color, in which Mr. Hartwell practices his craft is the former Brethren Shop where the Shaker men practiced their own profitable crafts of broommaking (the Shakers invented the flat broom that we use today), boxmaking, harnessmaking, clockmaking, basketmaking, and coopering. The different shops are set up much as they were during the last century, and broommaking is taught in two workshops each year.

Across the way is the Sisters Dairy and Weave Shop where the Shaker women made cheese and butter on the first floor. While waiting for the milk to come in the barn, they repaired to the second story where they worked on the looms and flax wheels producing whole cloth and linen. Today spinning is taught in four workshops where participants learn the Shaker techniques, including the use of natural dyes.

Additional information about any of the village's craft workshops is available by writing to Workshops, Shaker Community Inc., PO Box 898, Pittsfield , Mass. 01201 or calling (413) 443-0188.

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