The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester is a working farm and a living museum. In fact, the last two Shakers on Earth, Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter, live and work in the community. They, along with a small farm staff and many volunteers, maintain nineteen historic buildings on approximately 1,800 acres of gorgeous farmland. It requires constant work.
Visitors are welcome to take a tour, visit the Museum, attend Sunday Service (“public meeting”), or just shop in the Shaker store. It is a popular destination for school trips, where students learn about Shaker history, customs, and crafts. Sabbathday Lake hosts workshops throughout the year, holds events, functions as a retreat center, and has safeguarded the largest collection of Shaker artifacts in the world in its library. The surrounding property offers cross country skiing or just walking on the trails. The village is open from May through October to visitors.
I visited in September, 2023 and I took a very informative guided tour. After the tour, I was just walking around and ran into the Director Michael Graham in one of the barns. We ended up having a long conversation about the Village, both past and present. While chatting with Michael, Brother Arnold walked in to help out. Work on a farm never ends.
Note: we were asked to not take any interior pictures while visiting, so any interior pictures on this page are from other sources (including their social media).
What You Will See
When you pull into Sabbathday, you will see a neat white fence bordering a small, very walkable village. The village is connected by paths and there is a dirt road that loops through the main cluster of buildings off Shaker Road. The buildings in the village date from 1880 to the 1950s and are mostly simple wooden structures lined up in 3 rows. The most prominent building is probably the red brick Central Dwelling House. There are barns are at the South end of the property which house a flock of sheep and a whole lot of farming history. Just across the street are a few more buildings, including the meetinghouse and library, as well as the herb garden and some vegetable gardens.
The large surrounding property, including hay fields, vegetable gardens, and pastures, also features an apple orchard that the Shakers have leased for many years for commercial apple growing. It is located further west across Route 26. Down the street is the Quaker cemetery.
- Ministry’s Shop
- Schoolhouse (Shaker Library)
- Girl’s Shop
- Dwelling House
- Trustee’s Office (Shaker Store)
- Sister’s Shop
- Herb House
- Boys’ Shop (Reception Center)
- Carriage Shed
- Herb and vegetable gardens
- Pastures and hayfields
A Wee Bit of Shaker History
The Shakers (formally known as “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing”) are the remains of a religous sect that began in England in 1747. They moved to the US in the 1780s, settling near Albany, NY. The Shakers believed in a simple life, hard work, and equality.
They are probably best known for “Shaker style” furniture and crafts or perhaps for their tasty jams and jellies. They were skilled craftspeople and farmers, extremely self-sufficient, and were responsible for some interesting technological inventions.
By the mid 1800s, there were approximately 5,000 Shakers in 18 communities. Although most were in New York and New England (Maine, Mass, Connecticut, and New Hampshire), Shakers also settled in Kentucky and Ohio. Adults freely joined communities, while children were often dropped off as orphans or by widows who just couldn’t manage. Shakers had to remain celibate, so any new members had to come from the outside.
Gorham, Alfred, and New Gloucester
Maine actually had three Shaker Communities at one point. Along with Sabbathday, there was one in Gorham and another in Alfred. Gorham closed in 1819 and the remaining members moved to Poland Hill for a few years before moving to Sabbathday. Alfred hung on until 1931 before selling the property to The Brothers of Christian Instruction. Eight buildings remain in Alfred and you can visit their Shaker museum.
The fact that Sabbathday is the sole surviving Shaker village is interesting, because for most of its history, it was one of the smallest and poorest of all Shaker communities in the country.
It was referred to as the “least of Mother’s children in the East.”
Side Trip: The Bottled Water Connection
In the 1780s, when some Shakers moved to Alfred, they informed a local farmer named Jabez Ricker that God needed him to give them his farmland to them (which incidentally had the only mill stream near the Shakers). Jabez, a devout man, complied with their request but wisely negotiated some compensation in return.
The Shakers agreed to a farm swap, handing Ricker a farm they owned in Poland (near Sabbathday) in exchange for the Alfred land. The land the Shakers gave up was on the main thoroughfare that farmers and tradesmen took to Poland. Jabez decided to take advantage of the steady traffic and opened an Inn (the Wentworth Ricker Inn). The Inn slowly declined in popularity until 1844 when his grandson Hiram Ricker “discovered” the healing properties of the local spring water. He decided to promote the water as a cure-all and his marketing efforts worked. People started flocking to Poland to fix their aches and pains, and this eventually turned into both the Poland Spring Resort and the ubiquitous Poland Spring water.
While the Rickers prospered withPoland Spring, the Shakers that sold them the land did quite well themselves. Although the Resort was private, the Sabbathday Shakers were allowed on the grounds. Shakers were very accomplished farmers and craftspeople, and produced top-quality products.
The Shaker sisters made the three mile trip to the resort four times a week to sell their wares.
Popular items including rugs, brushes, fir balsam pillows, poplarware (those Shaker boxes you always see), candy, syrup, Shaker dolls, sewing carriers and cloaks. They sold so many flowers that they had to build a greenhouse in the Village. They also sold apples, cream, potatoes, pears, and firewood to the Rickers. Business was good, and some of the resort guests even found their way to Sunday services.
It turns out that the Shaker life wasn’t for everyone, and the population dwindled steadily through the 1800s. Many reasons for the decline exist, including economic pressure from industrialization which made it hard for the Shakers to compete selling their hand-crafted good. Brothers and Sisters left the villages, and very few new members trickled in to replace them. By the early 1900s, most communities had closed and had either sold or given their land away. Some members simply moved to other communities or rejoined general society. By 1936, there were only 92 shakers left. The “last straw” came in 1960 when a law was passed forbidding adoption by religious communities.
Out of necessity, Sabbathday Lake slowly changed from being a community of Shakers living a simple, agrarian lifestyle to being a shared resource for the greater community.
Of the most recent Shakers, Brother Arnold came to Sabbathday in 1978 and Sister June in 1989, joining Sister Frances Carr who had arrived as a 10 year old in 1937. Since then, a few other people tried being full-fledged Shakers, but they just don’t last. The Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire lost its last resident in 1992, and Sister Frances died at Sabbathday in 2017, leaving Arnold and June alone in New Gloucester.
As Sabbathday Lake rolled into the 2000s, it was facing a grim situation. The village had a tiny, aging population, was short on cash, and the buildings were in desperate need of repair. Property taxes were also skyrocketing. The Shakers had been wonderful stewards of the land for over 200 years, but erosion, frost, rot, and general decay were threatening most buildings. A hay tractor even fell through the floor of the barn. The Shakers needed a plan, and lots of cash, to save the village.
Help arrived in 2007. A number of groups worked together to raise $3.5 million to purchase the land and conserve it for future generations through a conservation easement. The money not only provided a needed influx of capital, it also included funds for ongoing care. Partners included The Royal River Conservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land, New England Forestry Foundation, Maine Preservation, and Land for Maine’s Future. But the majority ($2.2 million) actually came from private donations.
Grand Plans for the Future
The easement was the first step, but the village needs more than what the easement provided. The Shakers, along with Director Michael Graham, worked with designers, architects, and historical experts to come up with a Master Plan for the future. The Plan includes the restoration of existing buildings, a massive change to the Herb barn, and an overall investment in Sabbathday’s role as an educational resource. It also include expansion of the trail network and the creation of a wildlife refuge.
One of the projects currently underway is the lifting and restoring of the Shaker Barn. The National Park Service recently gave a grant toward that effort. Another project is the 3-year, $4.3 million rehabilitation of the Herb Barn. When complete, it will feature more than 8,000 square feet of space for year-round, public educational programs, a commercial kitchen classroom, traditional arts workshops, and herb production spaces. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently made a large grant towards the project.
Sabbathday Lake, along with the Shakers themselves, have proven that they can adapt to the changing times. They are investing in the future so that they can continue to serve both the land and the greater community. Their efforts help protect threatened farm land, safeguard Shaker history, and continue to be a resource to the community.
“Not only is this not the end, it’s the beginning of a new beginning. This is a 21st century Shaker story.” – Brother Arnold