Invention in Enfield

Invention in Enfield

The Enfield (N.H.) Shakers were farmers, weavers, manufacturers and inventors — and you can learn about their innovations at the Enfield Shaker Museum.

Text and photography by Laura Jean Whitcomb

What would you do with your day if you didn’t have all the marvels of modern technology? Well, if you were an Enfield Shaker, you were farming, building, crafting, cooking, creating, and inventing.

The Enfield Shakers lived and prospered in Enfield, N.H., from the 1780s until 1923. They practiced celibacy, communal ownership of property, equality of the sexes and races and pacifism. They grew their food, raised animals and made items in their shops. You might think a religious group would be afraid of progress, but the Shakers were forward-thinking and accepting of technology and improvements.

You can learn about the Shakers — and all their innovations — at the Enfield Shaker Museum. A guided tour is available, and you’ll see just how industrious the Shakers were. Consider the Great Stone Dwelling. At one time it was the biggest building north of Boston. And consider that it had 100 people living in it. The Shakers knew that it might get a bit, well, stinky, so they built a ventilation system for the chamber pots, and later the oil lamps. That’s just one Shaker innovation way ahead of its time.

The tour starts with woodworking and mill history. There are many examples of the Shaker’s fine woodwork throughout the museum. From built-in drawers and interior shutters to chairs and cupboards, the Shakers took their time and created beautiful items. They believed work was a form of worship.

But you’ll also see machinery throughout the museum, like a circular knitting machine to make socks. The Shakers made and sold corn brooms, wash tubs and pails. They were part of a successful business, producing a corn planter that helped farmers plant and fertilize 20 acres per day. They produced 175,000 yards of flannel a year in a mill with 35 employees. They farmed more than 3,000 acres; made herbal medicines and “cankker cures”; and sold packaged garden seeds “adapted to the climate of New England.”

“There were five US patents issued to Enfield Shakers,” says Michael O’Connor, title. “The patents were for a folding stereopticon viewer, a mop bucket mechanism, an improved loom harness, a shingle machine, and a water wheel.” You can see the stereopticon viewer in room two on the guided tour. It was a way to see images in 3D. “The stereoview cards have two side-by-side images, when viewed through the viewer the image appears 3D. It was a very popular form of recreation in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Several different series of stereoview cards were photographed at the Enfield Shaker Village by several different photographers.”

After 130 years, declining membership forced the Shakers to close their village and put it up for sale in 1923. In 1927 the property was sold to the Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette, a Roman Catholic Order of priests and brothers. The LaSalettes established a two-year college seminary, a high school seminary, a summer camp and a shrine on the site. By 1975, the school and the camp had closed, but the shrine remains and is open to the public. In 1986, the Enfield Shaker Museum was formed to protect the site and legacy of the Enfield Shaker community.

It’s really pretty amazing what this community of 300 Shakers built, and the history is well preserved thanks to the Enfield Shaker Museum. For a small fee, families can tour nine historic buildings on 21 acres, explore the museum exhibits, take a guided or self-guided tour, or participate in one of the museum’s educational programs or annual events. If you, or someone in your family, likes being hands on with history, spend a day at the Enfield Shaker Museum.

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