Hands to Work, Hearts to God

A traveler in the 1820s, having toured the prosperous Shaker village of Mount Lebanon in upstate New York, raved about the place in his memoirs: “Every thing bears the impress of labour, vigilance and skill.” Along the community’s busy fields and streets, he noted, “Not a weed, not a spot of filth, or any nuisance is suffered to exist.” The austere buildings were so kempt and well-constructed, he concluded, “unless overthrown by force, they may stand for centuries.” Despite his predictions, few of Mount Lebanon’s buildings endured a century. Mount Lebanon peaked in 1860 with a population of 600 living on 6,000 rolling acres with Berkshire views. The community was originally organized into eight “families,” clusters of dwellings and workshops to accommodate 30 to 100 Shakers. Three of these clusters have been razed. Fragments of the other five survive, due to a few devoted owners, preservationists, and scholars. One belongs to a Sufi commune called the Abode of the Message, and the rest are concentrated in an historic district with 32 buildings—out of an original 130—dotting 72 acres. Fires have devastated portions of the site, groundwater torrents have unsettled its foundations, vandals have torn out its fittings, and carpenter ants have gnawed its hewn beams.

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