Simple gifts : a memoir of a Shaker village /

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Bibliographic Details
Author / Creator:Sprigg, June.
Edition:1st ed.
Imprint:New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Description:x, 227 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
Subject:Sprigg, June -- Childhood and youth.
Sprigg, June.
Shakers -- New Hampshire -- Canterbury.
Canterbury (N.H.) -- Biography.
New Hampshire -- Canterbury.
Format: Print Book
URL for this record:
Hidden Bibliographic Details
ISBN:0679455043 (hc)
Notes:Includes bibliographical references (p. 215-227).

Chapter One Gus and Alice    I arrived at Canterbury Shaker Village, about twelve miles north of Concord, New Hampshire, in late afternoon at the end of May 1972, with Mom and Grandma in the old blue Chevy station wagon. It had been a long drive from Martin's Creek, Pennsylvania, but my course had been steered in this direction years earlier, through a series of life's coincidences. When I was very young, our family had vacationed every summer in Maine, where we stayed at the lakeside cottage of Uncle Bert, across the water from the village of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers, Maine's only surviving Shaker community. In the late 1950s, there were only two other Shaker villages left in America: one in Hancock, Massachusetts (which became a museum in 1960), and the other in Canterbury, a couple of hours' drive away.     The lake was lovely, especially for us kids. The bottom sand was silky smooth between our toes, but you had to watch out for sharp mussel shells. We rowed the old boat up and down the inlet for hours.     It was hard to pry us from the water. But on rainy days we'd go poke around some antique shops or take a trip over to the Shakers. My sister Ann and I must have been slightly odd little kids, because we went willingly and behaved ourselves, even in the small museum there. There was an old woman with a long dress who showed people the furniture, clothes, baskets, and so on in the plain white Meetinghouse, which we learned was the Shakers' church. The old wavy window panes did funny things to the apple orchard on the hill above. Across the road was the village's biggest building, more than three stories tall, made of brick, with lots of windows. We were told that it was the Dwelling, where most of the remaining Shakers lived. Some of them lived in the Office and in the Girls' Shop. The village, which consisted of about a dozen buildings along Maine's Route 26, was quiet and mostly white clapboard, like any other small New England town. There were big old trees along the road and around the lawns, which sloped down and down to fields, then to woods, and finally, way down, to the shore of the lake.     The Gift Shop made the biggest impression on us kids. It was in the Office and Store, a white building a short distance from the Dwelling. The Shop was a big, pleasant room with large windows facing the road. We put our noses against glass cases filled with Shaker handiwork for sale: knitted baby bonnets and booties, cardboard and cloth needlebooks, pincushions, beautiful oval wooden boxes with lids. There were racks of old-fashioned black-and-white photo postcards. We always got maple-sugar candy. One year we each got a small china-headed doll. Ann's was blonde and mine was dark and wore a pale blue thin cotton dress, tied at the waist and neck with pink satin ribbon. On another visit Grandpa bought me a dollhouse Shaker stove, made of real cast iron. We went back to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village year after year. Nothing seemed to change, which was nice. It seemed to be something you could count on.     The years went by, until one summer I was fifteen; Ann was a year older. Tadpoles and rowboats didn't have quite the thrill that they had had a few years before. Our new hobby was boys, and there weren't any up at the lake, at least in our inlet. Is it possible that we were bored? Is it possible that we mentioned that we were bored, repeatedly? At any rate, that was the year my involvement with the Shakers grew, thanks to the suggestion that we go visit the Shakers' neighbors, just down the hill, a retired couple who made high-quality miniatures. In fact, the dollhouse stove Grandpa got for me in the Shaker store years earlier was one of theirs. We piled into the car and drove around the lake to a small white house with a wooden sign in the yard: "Gus and Alice Schwerdtfeger--Miniature Shaker Furniture." The lady who answered the backdoor smiled and invited us in. There was coffee heating on the stove, so we must have arrived at around three, which was when Gus and Alice took their afternoon break. I was to learn that you could set your watch by it.     The kitchen led into the dining room, which was clearly used for dining no more. Every tabletop and surface was covered with miniatures, mostly their own work. On a table next to the wall was a small shadowbox Shaker room, filled with wonderfully authentic furnishings, one inch to the foot. There were chairs and candle stands, washstands, and wood boxes, each of which could rest comfortably in your palm. I didn't know a whole lot about Shaker furniture, but from our yearly visits to the museum, we could tell that these small-scale replicas were very well done indeed.     Gus used maple and pine, just like the antique originals. The furniture that was painted was all the right colors: barn red for the cupboard and washstand, dark green for the bed. The attention to detail was amazing. The bed was strung with twine "rope" and there were tiny wheels on the feet that really rolled (the Shakers put their beds on wheels to make them easier to move for thorough housecleaning). He made tiny brass hogscraper candlesticks out of cup hooks and the tubes of ballpoint pens. One ladder-back chair had perfect little "tilting feet" on its back legs. Just as in the full-size originals, Gus hollowed out the bottom of the back legs and threaded a half-round tilter into place. The device, used by the Shakers since the 1820s, was designed to keep the chair's feet flat on the floor when the sitter leaned back, to keep the floorboards like new, free from little dents.     The dustpan and brush hanging from the peg on the wood box were hardly bigger than a postage stamp. Alice smiled proudly when she told us that Gus stuck precisely twenty bristles from his old shaving brush into each tiny hole in the brush handle. In workmanship, Alice was Gus's equal. She wove the checkerboard cloth seats of the chairs with colored tapes barely an eighth-inch wide. The carpets she braided of embroidery floss in subdued colors were just the right scale. The little shadowbox room was presided over by a dollhouse lady with white hair in a bun, outfitted by Alice in a perfect little Shaker dress, complete with long pleated skirt and cape, or "bertha," over the shoulders.     When we had admired everything in the dining room, Alice led us down the hall to Gus's workroom, a cubbyhole about the size of a pantry. Gus sat at a huge rolltop desk that practically filled the room. Every pigeonhole held little wooden parts or some kind of tool. Everything in the room, including Gus, was slightly blurry with sawdust. It smelled wonderful. In one enormous hand, knobby and callused from years as a master welder in the shipyards in nearby Bath, Gus held a one-eighth-inch dowel. In the other, a penknife deftly moved: one stroke, two, three. In the time it takes to describe, the end of the dowel was a perfect little drawer knob that would have been dwarfed by an aspirin tablet.     By now, it was time for coffee. We sat around the kitchen table and listened to the story of how they came to be making Shaker miniatures. They took turns talking, companionably. Gus was tall and bony in khaki work shirt and pants, with big hands and a long, good-humored face. His voice was pleasantly rough from the endless stream of short, stubby Camels he smoked. Alice, small and quick with big dark eyes, was his match in the smoking department, too. Gus had moved to Maine in his youth to work as a welder in the shipyards. He was New York City born and bred, but you'd never know it. His boyhood accent was long gone, replaced with the broadest of Down East. The shipyards were in Bath--"Baahth," when he said it. Alice Mallett was working as a waitress when she and Gus met. Mama Mallett was not happy. Gus was considerably older than Alice, and he was divorced, besides. When they married, in 1936, Mania gave the marriage a year at best.     We all laughed. It was now 1968 and they were still going strong, many years later. In time, Gus and Alice had had a little girl and had settled into a big connected Maine farmhouse and barn, which happened to make them the Sabbathday Lake Shakers' nearest neighbors to the south. More than a half mile of field stretched between the two places, so they weren't exactly placed to develop a gab-over-the-back-fence kind of friendship. But everything changed one bitter winter night in the forties, when the house caught on fire. They all got out safely, but the house and barn were destroyed. The Shakers up the road didn't waste a minute inviting the family to stay with them in the community until they got back on their feet. The Shaker Family was shrinking, and there was plenty of spare room in the Office. Gus and Alice grinned when they recalled Eldress Prudence Stickney's generous offer. Coming from this tiny autocrat, it sounded like an order.     They obeyed, and moved into their own quarters while Gus went about moving and altering a one-room schoolhouse into a new home. Alice got to know the Sisters as she helped them with chores, and little Viola went to the Shaker school with other neighborhood kids as well as children cared for by the community. Gus made friends with Elder Delmer Wilson, at that time the last Shaker Brother at Sabbathday Lake (and one of a tiny handful anywhere else). In time, Gus and Alice moved back down the hill, but the bonds of friendship remained and grew.     Gus assisted Delmer from time to time with repairs and odd jobs around the village. Gus and Alice both recalled the Shaker man with respect and affection. Late in life he had been made Elder, but he was a simple man who preferred his old title of Brother. Delmer, born in 1873, was placed with the Shakers in Sabbathday Lake when he was eight. His mother, widowed when Delmer was three, sent his brother, too. At fourteen, Delmer had charge of the community's herd of cattle. As he grew, he became the self-taught master of a number of trades. At eighteen he built and steam-fitted a large greenhouse. When he was thirty-six, he bought a book called The Steel Square and Its Use so he could build a garage for the Family's new automobile, purchased in 1909. The beekeeping came after he read The ABC's of Bees. It was a good thing that he was clever that way, because there were fewer and fewer older Brothers to instruct him. Among them, his fine teachers included Elder William Dumont, Brother Washington Jones, and Brother Eben Coolbroth.     Delmer was a good old-fashioned Shaker, adept at any number of things. One of his loves was the orchard that spread over the hill behind the Meetinghouse. Alice told how he used to bring them bushels of apples and potatoes for a Christmas gift. He became dear to them, a sort of kindly godfather who hovered nearby and shared in their family's growth in his Shaker Brother's way. He thought and spoke like a man of the earth. When he saw their first newborn grandchild, Alice recalled, he said in awe and wonder that the baby was the "greenest thing" he'd ever seen--new and tiny and tender, like a freshly sprouted seedling. I wondered if he had ever seen a newborn baby so close in person before, and thought, probably not. He was also an accomplished carpenter, furniture maker, photographer, and artist. It was Delmer who had taken the crisp, nicely balanced black-and-white pictures that the community still sold as postcards. It was Delmer, too, who had kept alive the tradition of making fine oval wooden carriers, long after other Shaker communities had stopped making them. A carrier was an open oval box with a fixed or swinging bail handle that served like a basket in function.     The oval carriers we had seen over the years in the Shaker Store were not Delmer's, however. When Delmer felt that it was time for him to retire from the craft, after making thousands of carriers in his lifetime, he and the Sisters thought that Gus might take over the business. He knew Gus was a good craftsman and he also knew that the carriers sold well for the Shakers in their Store. When Gus agreed to give it a try, Delmer dropped off some parts and tools, but no instructions. Gus said that he figured Delmer had faith that he could work out the process himself. Gus said that it took a week before he had made a box that he felt was up to Delmer's high standards. When Gus handed it to Delmer for inspection, the Elder gave it a good thorough once-over in silence--then smiled his approval and told Gus that he had himself a job.     It meant a great deal to Gus that Delmer held him and his way of working in such high regard. The Shakers' motto, "Hands to work, hearts to God," was a quote of Mother Ann. As far as hands and heart went, Gus would have made a fine Shaker, and in fact Sister Lillian at Canterbury joked with him and Alice about this. The Camels and nightly thimble of medicinal whiskey would have had to go, of course, as well as a few of Gus's pithier expressions and the ancient pin-up girl on the calendar in his big workshop out back, which survived the fire. Gus pointed out that the pin-up came with the shop when they bought the place, but I noticed that in several decades he had never felt moved to take her down. She made a striking appearance, naked as she was alongside a magnificent black stallion. The first time their dear friend Sister Mildred paid a call to the shop, Gus recalled, she glanced at the calendar, was quiet a moment, and then said, "My, what a beautiful horse."     Yes, all this would have had to go, as well as Alice, so Gus's conversion was hardly likely. But his manner of working shed light on a way of Shaker life that had passed. "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you would die tomorrow," Mother Ann also said. As a boy and young man, Delmer had witnessed the great Shaker workshops and mills in action. Now they were silent, some in ruins, and Delmer, too, was gone, but not before handing Gus something that meant a lot to them both.     When Gus retired from the shipyards, he began fooling around with miniatures in addition to making boxes. Alice began to add her ideas and handwork, and before long, they had a nice little home business going, with sales to the Shakers' Store as well as to individuals who either saw the sign or heard about them and stopped at the backdoor, like us. By the time we met them, they had a permanent waiting list of appreciative and devoted collectors. I had no money to speak of at fifteen, but I knew if I ever got some, I'd like to join the list.     We thanked Alice and Gus for the coffee and a lovely time and piled back into the car and drove back around the lake. That was the end of our first visit, but just the beginning of my long and wonderful friendship with them. It was partly that I liked miniatures and truly admired Gus and Alice's fine workmanship, but even more that I was crazy about Gus. My father had died before I was two and Mom had never remarried. Grandpa was a good man, but stern and hard to get to know.     When we went home to Pennsylvania, I wrote to Gus and Alice. Alice wrote right back, a friendly letter that encouraged a reply. Before long I got the idea of drawing miniature versions of Shaker "gift" or spirit drawings like The Tree of Life by Sister Hannah Cohoon, and sent off a few samples. Gus and Alice liked them and offered to take orders from their customers. It was a deal! We stayed in touch for the next three years, while lots of things changed. Ann and I graduated from high school. When the package postmarked "Maine" came in the mail, I couldn't believe my fortune. Gus and Alice had sent me a little open display case complete with furnishing's, including a rocker, a table, and one of Alice's beautiful braided carpets, in gray, maroon, and green. The walls were painted white, like Shaker walls, and there was a perfect section of peg rail on the wall. Each peg, carved by hand, was only a quarter-inch long. This was no toy for some kid. It was the beginning of a real collection, exquisite and valuable, the kind of thing that adults had, and it was my proudest possession.     There was sad news, too. Grandpa died that summer, leaving a big hole in our little family of five. The visits to Maine ended. Ann and I both went to work that summer and then to college in the fall. When summer rolled around, I wasn't really a kid anymore, but I wasn't all grown up, either, so Alice's letter was perfectly timed. Why didn't I plan to visit her and Gus for a week at the end of the summer she asked. I could stay on the fold-out sofa bed in the living room. This was not the same old family trip. It was the first solo invitation of my young adult life. At eighteen, I could not have been more pleased.     It was nice but also strange to be there for real. We had written for three years now, but I had never spent more than an hour or two with them in person, and never without my family. Over coffee at the familiar kitchen table, the strangeness quickly wore off, and I felt at home. To Gus's surprise, I couldn't be pried from his elbow at the big rolltop desk in the workroom. When he offered to show me how to do what he did, I was in heaven. We sat there for hours that week. He showed me how to carve a tiny peg and a tiny pull from maple dowels. Then I was promoted to carving something bigger: a smooth pine oval the size of a large nutmeg, which he finished into a miniature standing bonnet mold. I was entranced--it came out well. The next job was even tougher: the shaped pine seat for a low-back Windsor-style Shaker dining chair, the kind they had made at Canterbury.     It was a pleasure to watch Gus especially when he was figuring out something new. He was a natural-born mechanic in the old sense of the word: an artisan, someone gifted by God in the art and mystery of making things. His economy of motion fascinated me. He'd ponder a bit, then pick up whatever tool or make whatever jig was needed for the next step. He didn't make a false move. It was a kind of grace I'd never seen, and I realized later that we don't get to see much of it now that the Industrial Revolution has changed how things are made.     I, on the other hand, had a knack for going at things "bass-backwards," as Gus put it. I didn't mind his kidding, but I took to watching him like a hawk to catch him in a mistake. Maybe I did, once. In spite of my awkwardness, the things I tried came out well. I don't know who was more surprised and pleased--Gus, at my dedication, or me, at my success. I had never carved anything more ambitious than a bird out of Ivory soap at day camp. Since he stamped his work with a small S, we agreed that my work should be marked JS. During that week, I made about a half dozen pieces, with Gus's help.     More than anything else, I came to love our evenings around the kitchen table. Its enameled metal top was pleasantly cool to the touch. While Gus and Alice talked and smoked, I traced the brown and red enamel patterns with my finger. The only light in the house was the lamp on the wall that washed us in its warm yellow glow.     They told me more about their friendship with the Shakers. Over the years, Gus and Alice had also become friends with the Shakers from New Hampshire. In time-honored Shaker tradition, the Canterbury Shakers had made regular visits to their sister community at Sabbathday Lake, and vice versa. In the old days, by horse and wagon, the trip took much longer. Early in the twentieth century, the Shakers in both communities had acquired automobiles. This was not a break with tradition, since the Shakers, unlike the Amish, embraced modern technology. For two hundred years, Shakers had seen no conflict between the spiritual life and technological progress. This made sense, when you considered that the Shakers got their start in Manchester, England, a major early factory town, during the birth of the Industrial Revolution.     Anyway, the visits back and forth had introduced Gus and Alice to the Canterbury Shakers and they, too, became friends. Gus and Alice shared so many fond recollections of their New Hampshire Shaker friends that I began to feel that I knew them myself. Sister Lillian Phelps, in her nineties, was the spiritual center of the community. She was a fine musician who loved to play the piano and organ. Gus really liked her sense of humor, and the way she kidded him right back. Lillian thought so highly of Alice that she gave her friend one of the few treasures she'd kept from her life before Canterbury Shaker Village--her tiny china doll, bought with the weekly nickels that Lillian earned by shining her father's shoes.     Bertha Lindsay, in her seventies, was the brand-new Eldress, appointed to that office following the death of Eldress Marguerite Frost earlier that year. Gus and Alice both adored Bertha, who was like a daughter to Lillian. They had respect for Bertha, too, because it wasn't easy running a Shaker community, tending to Lillian's health, and also being in charge of the communal kitchen. Bertha fed eight or ten people every day in the summer, and she was an excellent cook.     By the summer of 1971, going to Canterbury from Sabbathday Lake was no big deal, just a couple of hours' drive across the New Hampshire border. You could make it a comfortable day trip if you didn't stay too long or leave too late. So when Gus and Alice had a delivery of miniatures to make to the shop at Canterbury, I went along.     The sun was shining in a New England sky the color of the cornflowers that grew along the road. We made our way along Route 202, through one small Maine town after another, over shallow, rocky rivers and past old mills, Grange halls, and tall white churches.     En route, Gus and Alice talked about Bud Thompson, who had helped found the museum at Canterbury, and who gave tours. They liked Bud a lot. He had visited the Canterbury Shakers years ago as a young folksinger, wanting to learn more about Shaker music, like the sacred song "Simple Gifts." Intrigued with everything he found, he had hung around and become close friends of Lillian and Bertha. In time, he married and had two boys, who were as dear as grandsons to the elderly Shaker Sisters. When he saw that the community's heritage was in danger of disappearing, he worked with Lillian and Bertha to open a museum. The Shakers had made visitors welcome since 1792, so offering guided tours was nothing new. Bud fixed up a fine exhibit of Shaker workmanship in the Meetinghouse. Gus said that if we were lucky, Bud would be on duty when we got there. Bud's tours were famous. He was knowledgeable and funny.     Shaker Road, not far from Concord, was definitely a country road. It was paved--"hard-topped," the natives said--but narrow and full of potholes as it climbed steadily through scrubby woods. As we rounded the final bend, Gus slowed the car so we could appreciate the approach. Before us, Canterbury Shaker Village floated at the top of a long, green rise, a rare stretch of open field in a state long since abandoned by farmers. At the crest, a magnificent row of sugar maples rose slightly from the road on the left to the neat white gambrel-roofed Meetinghouse, a twin to the one in Sabbathday Lake. Behind the Meetinghouse was the taller roofline of an enormous Dwellinghouse, also shining white clapboard, with a domed cupola crowning all. The maples shielded the rest of the buildings from sight. To the right, at the far end of the wide field, an apple orchard curved down the hill. Beyond the orchard was forest.     Gus drove slowly up the last hill. A stately double row of maples arched their branches overhead. Just beyond were the Shakers' stone walls, or more accurately, fences. Even in a first glimpse from a moving car, you could tell the workmanship was remarkable. These walls were not just heaps of piled cobbles, but consisted of huge, angular chunks of granite, fitted so neatly that the surfaces were nearly as flat as pavement. Some of the rocks were a yard across. The walls reminded me vaguely of pictures I had seen of the ancient Incan stonework at Machu Picchu. This wall was not so big and grand, but it was impressive just the same. As Gus drove slowly forward, we could see the field basking in the sunlight to the right; to the left, thin woods crowded up to the wall.     And then we were at the top of the hill. From here, on the right, the Meetinghouse lay at the far end of a broad green lawn flanked by maples even older and craggier than those along Shaker Road. It looked so cool and refreshing. The Meetinghouse itself faced the road, and even at this distance, we could see the twin doors on the front, just as at Sabbathday Lake--one for men, one for women. A fence separated the Meetinghouse and its lawn from the rest of the village buildings, which sloped up a rise along a straight granite walk, one after another, gleaming white in the early-afternoon sun. Perched at the far end of this yard was a small house that faced the road. That was the Girls' House, where Bertha had lived as a child. Now that Bud and his sons lived there, Gus and Alice joked, it would need a new name.     We could see more buildings behind this first row, but they would have to wait for the tour. In the meantime, Gus pulled over to the only principal building on this side of the road. It was a large, handsome brick house with two small Victorian porches, really more like covered doorways. To the right was a small open addition, a kind of porch roof on columns over a driveway. I knew it was a porte cochere, a covered place to park a buggy or automobile and go inside without getting wet in bad weather. The Trustees' Office was where visitors stopped, Gus and Alice said, and also where Lillian and Bertha lived. The big, heavy door was open to the hallway, and in we went.     You'd think that the details of my first meeting with Bertha and Lillian would be dear in my memory, but they're not. There was so much to take in that the rest of the afternoon remains a pleasant blur. I know that we went on tour with Bud, and it was every bit as lively as promised. His warm good humor shone over what he showed and told to bring Shaker history to life. I know that we sat and visited with Lillian and Bertha, although I can't recall whether it was in the bright bubble-gum pink sitting room (that was a surprise) or out on the other little porch, which was screened. Their rooms were comfortably furnished with ordinary chairs and sofas, not classic Shaker chairs. It was a home, not a museum. There was a cheerful clutter of knickknacks in the sitting room, an upright piano, and a TV. Everything was spotlessly clean. The Sisters wore long dresses in vivid colors (another surprise) and white net caps, the sign of their commitment to the Shaker faith. I know that we must have been offered refreshments, because hospitality in a Shaker village was as inevitable and natural as breathing.     The details don't matter, anyway. What I do remember is how much I liked being there, and how much I enjoyed the easy laughter of these good old friends. Lillian was lovely, and she was also older than anyone I knew except maybe Auntie Rader back home. Her spirit was bright with the light of intelligent goodness, and I could tell it was only her physical self that was falling to age. Everything about Lillian seemed soothingly low and slow. She had droopy hound-dog jowls and she spoke deliberately in a voice that was clear and low. Her deep, gentle chuckle would have melted the heart of Scrooge. Everything about Bertha was higher and lighter--her voice, her laugh, the relative quickness of her hands and legs. They were devoted to each other, that was for sure.     We didn't stay long. Gus and Alice knew that Bertha had plenty to do, and besides, we wanted to get home well before dark. We turned in early that evening, worn out. But that night, sitting up in the sofa bed for a few last moments of wakefulness, I turned the day over in my mind, and felt the echoes of warmth and light.     My week with Gus and Alice ended all too soon and then it was back home to college and classes. When spring rolled around, I gave thought to a summer job in a museum in New England. I was turning nineteen and getting ready to fly. Off went a dozen letters of application, including one to the Canterbury Shakers. I hoped for one offer from the lot. One came from the Canterbury Shakers, who were hiring summer tour guides, and I'm sure that my association with Gus and Alice put me in a favorable light. Because I was from out of town, they would give me room and board so I could afford to go. The only other offer, coincidentally, was from another Shaker museum in Massachusetts, Hancock Shaker Village, where there were handsome buildings and a fine collection, but no living Shakers anymore. They needed a clerk in the gift shop, and I'd have to find a place to stay.     In hindsight, the choice seems obvious. I'd like to say that there was no contest at the time, but that's not true. I had my eye on a young man, and the plain truth is that I chose Canterbury because it was slightly closer to where he lived. Never mind that it was a one-way crush. Gus and Alice, who knew of my initial indecision, told me later that they'd held their breaths, knowing how special an opportunity it would be to live and work with the Shakers, and hoping I'd choose well.     God works in mysterious ways, and I did make, the right choice. Copyright © 1998 June Sprigg. All rights reserved.