Backstory: These Shakers won't be movers

Final four members of America's only populated Shaker village, in rural Maine, agree to a preservation plan to protect the enclave from subdivisions.

Wafts of fruitcake, fresh from the oven, lace the brick Dwelling House, built in 1883. In the barn across the field, as the sun hangs low on a winter horizon, three pigs gleefully scuttle toward Brother Arnold. "Hello kids, hello kids," he coos, patting their rumps as if they were pet dogs.

In many ways, life has changed little in this pastoral patch of southern Maine, where the Shaker community has toiled for more than two centuries. That's why Brother Arnold winces when he is told they are vanishing.

"Everyone says, 'poor Shakers,' " he says. "People come here, and say we are gone."

You could, of course, be forgiven the assumption. This is the last populated Shaker village in the country. The other 17 have disappeared or become museums. And here on Sabbathday Lake, on 1,800 idyllic acres of forest, apple orchard, and pasture, only four Shakers remain, pledging celibacy, and, in their founder Mother Ann's words, to put their "hands to work and hearts to God."

Brother Arnold, Brother Wayne, Sister June, and Sister Frances are the last possessors of the Shaker tradition, a responsibility they are reminded of each day as they share meals across long, wooden tables, or when they say goodnight and head to their separate rooms. Yet it is not with a sense of doom, but determination, that they uphold the tenets of their centuries-old faith - and adapt to the realities of the future.

Sometimes that means looking outward in ways both pragmatic and novel. Recently they signed a $3.7 million preservation plan with a consortium of conservation groups in Maine to ease their tax bills and protect their property from being turned into subdivisions. "Friends are increasingly important to this community," says Brother Arnold, patting their golden retriever, Chase.

The United Society of Believers, dubbed Shakers because they shook and trembled during 18th-century worship, was never a group of vast numbers. Ann Lee founded the Protestant sect in 1747 in England, but, because of persecution, they immigrated to the US in 1774. Here they formed communities stretching from Maine to Florida. At their height before the Civil War, they numbered 5,000, many of them orphans.

Most of the world has become acquainted with Shakerism through the simple, solid furniture the group produced over the decades. "There has been an incredible love, almost a romantic love and embrace of the material culture of the Shakers," says Stephen Stein, an emeritus professor of religion at Indiana University in Bloomington.

While their wooden chairs and tables have become American icons, much of their ethos is quintessentially Yankee. They embrace progress, and their inventions, such as the clothespin or flat-bottomed broom, are hallmarks of the value they place on efficiency. Though they are often confused with the Amish, Shakers use modern conveniences - they share three vehicles and use the Internet - and practice communal living in a way that can make life less simple.

At Sabbathday Lake, where only trucks rumbling down Route 26 interrupt a quiet afternoon, the four awake to morning prayers and set to work. They tend to 30 sheep, nine cattle, and three pigs. They gather gifts for the needy and lay out hydrangeas to dry for wreaths. They make their own yarn, cook and clean, and maintain 19 historic buildings. The great bell atop the Dwelling House summons them to meals.

Once, 183 "brothers" and "sisters" lived here. But when Shaker communities ceased to act as grand orphanages, and because all must pledge celibacy, new members only come through conversion. Brother Arnold was one of them, having corresponded with the Sabbathday Lake group in high school. His curiosity eventually became a calling, and though he has never looked back, he concedes that choosing the lifestyle takes a particular person, especially today.

To join, the group requires that potential members be unmarried, have no dependents, no debt, and surrender individual possessions. Brother Arnold says that while the world holds up celibacy as the biggest deterrent, the autonomy relinquished in the name of communal living may be the biggest challenge. "You replace the personal pronouns I and me with us and ours," he says.

It was this lifestyle that brought Shakers so much persecution throughout the early 19th century. Their culture was often seen as an affront to family life, challenging the social and moral values of the time. It was not until after the Civil War, when their numbers began to decline, that they were no longer considered threatening, says Dr. Stein.

The Shakers still pray for new members in their morning sessions. Sixty to 75 people inquire about conversion a year. Many choose, or are asked, not to stay. Yet the Shakers remain surrounded by a circle of supporters, many of whom belong to the nonprofit Friends of the Shakers, a nationwide fraternity.

"In a way, Shakers are more popular than ever," says David Watters, director of the Center for New England Culture at the University of New Hampshire, referring to their furniture, organic food, handicrafts, and Americans' nostalgia for simplicity.

Outsiders are also drawn to the deep religiosity of the group. At a recent Sunday Meeting, the Shakers were joined by a dozen others from the community. Jeanine Oren attends the Sunday worship about once a month and often pitches in to rake leaves or wash screens. Raised a Catholic, she views their faith as tolerant and progressive. "The spirit of Shakerism will always be alive," she says. "That spirit doesn't live or die based on the four people now there."

The conservation plan might seem a first step toward turning the property into a museum. Under the agreement, the Shakers will sell their development rights to the land trust to preserve the historic status of the site. But for the Shakers, it is a way to safeguard their property for future generations.

"We don't want to look out and see condos on the South Field," says Brother Arnold.

Nor does he envision a cluster of empty Shaker buildings. "There is always hope for new beginning," he says. "I live in expectation that someone, of all the people who inquire, is going to do something."

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