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Mount Lebanon Shaker Village: A Model of Sustainability

We had an interesting week at the Shaker Village. Friday we had a flood that was so severe it washed out two of the major roads, flooded the ponds over their banks, put about 3 to 4 feet of water in the basement of the brethren's shop, and caused one of the major aqueducts to fail, shooting water throughout the site and doing considerable damage. It's a testament that even though these water system components exist after 150+ years, disturbances at the top of the watershed may compromise the entire system. That makes it even more important that we are here documenting the site.

What is it we're doing, you ask? We were commissioned by the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), part of the National Park Service, to record the existing landscape of this national monument. By specifically focusing on the water system, we are recording the existing pieces and trying to connect the dots as to how the Shaker water system worked.

Why is this system important? It's a great model of sustainability. The Shakers created a system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts to provide water for all kinds of uses, from powering sawmills and irrigating crops to indoor plumbing, all of which exited the site into a swamp, “nature's kidney,” which the water leaves as clean as it went in to the system. The real feat was how productive the Shakers were on this system, making furniture, brooms, elixirs, and oval boxes, just to name a few. Hopefully this documentation will create some interest in looking at how to integrate this into more of a modern green system.

We're also pushing the envelope for HALS documentation by adding a 3-D component. The village has been completely re-created in Google Sketchup by wrapping 3-D models with exterior photos of the buildings. These models will be submitted to Google Earth so anyone can find the site. The 3-D models will also be linked to the documents when they are finished at the end of the summer.

It has been an interesting summer so far. The system that is left is very fragmented so it has been quite a challenge trying to fill in the gaps. We look for clues anywhere we get leads, including old documents, photos, talking with people who know the site, climbing up aqueducts and cisterns, and walking transects across the site with a pipe finder. We've made quite a few interesting discoveries, which you're welcome to check out for yourself when the documents become available. [Stay tuned to wmf.org for further info.]

One of the more exciting finds is the mill aqueduct. Located at the end of the system, this aqueduct is the largest. It's big enough to walk through. The exit was located through clues found on the 1942 HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) drawings. It's amazing after all this time that the aqueduct is in such good condition and this find has allowed us to understand Shaker construction methods and the way they controlled water.

It has rained here close to 75 percent of the time this summer. Which is good since we are studying the water system but I can't tell you how many pairs of shoes and clothes I've ruined. I'm learning to coexist with the mosquito population and pretty much accepting the fact that any day I do field work my feet are going to be wet. Even though I pretty much end every day wet and itchy, I can't think of a more rewarding way to spend a summer.

Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was placed on the Watch in both 2004 and 2006. Learn more about the Watch.