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Shirley Shaker Village
A Shaker Village existed in Shirley Massachusetts from the late 1700's to the early 1900's. The site is now a prison but it started as two farms. Shaker foundress Mother Ann Lee visited the Wilde brothers on their adjoining farms in the southern part of Shirley in 1783. Her followers saw her as the female embodiment of the Christ spirit. Her worship services were full of singing, dancing, and speaking in tongues. She preached racial and sexual equality. Believers strove to be modest, hard working, and peace loving. They confessed their sins daily to the elder or eldress. Their whole focus was on living the Godly life in every part of their day. Mother Ann also preached celibacy and this was one belief which caused conflict between the Shakers and non-Shakers.
Many seekers of spiritual truth came to Shirley to hear her speak. A poem of many stanzas tells of the night Mother Ann spent hiding in a closet at the Wilde's house to escape from an angry mob. In nearby Harvard, another community of Shakers was gathering. By 1790 there were sixty men, women, and children worshiping, working, and living together on the Wilds property. It had been decided that they could only follow the way if they lived in community, sharing their possessions, their work, and their worship every day.
In 1792 they began construction of a Meetinghouse. In 1793 they signed a covenant as a United Society of True Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. They proceeded to enlarge the farms and shops and build large dwellings for the other families who would join them in the community.
By 1850, at their height, the Shirley Community had a Church Family with Meetinghouse, large dwelling, brick office, brick wash house, brick trustees shop, several barns, and other wooden shops and dwellings. The North Family was the novitiate and had a three story brick shop, small office, large dwelling, the broom shop, and several barns and sheds. The South Family, over the line in Lancaster, had an office, dwelling, shop, and barn. This family also housed a home for the aged. According to the state census, there were 114 Shaker men, women and children in the Shirley Community at that time.
The Shirley Shakers were not known for their baskets, boxes, or chairs, but for their brooms, mops and applesauce. Their community was also unique among the Shakers in that they built a large cotton manufactory on the banks of the Catacunemaug. Then they realized that their work force was declining and they leased the factory to a company from New Bedford. Later the buildings were sold and a cordage factory made rope in them for over one hundred years.
In 1908 the last three Shirley Shaker sisters sold the property to the state of Massachusetts who opened an Industrial School for Boys on the site. By 1972 the reform school closed and the state opened a pre-release correctional facility in the old Shaker buildings. In 1976 the area was put on the National register of Historic Places. There is now a minimum, medium, and maximum security facility on the grounds of the Old Shaker Village. There are still eight Shirley Shaker buildings on their original foundations, and three that have been moved. The prison limits visits to the site, but they are possible through special arrangement.
Guided Tours of the Shirley Shaker Village
are available and will be held on certain Sundays in the fall. These tours will introduce visitors to the architecture and lifestyle of the Believers who lived in Shirley from 1793-1908. Participants will meet at a restored Shaker building at 12:30 P.M. for an introductory talk on the lifestyle of the Shakers and the history of the Shirley community. After the talk, they go inside two other Shaker buildings. The tour ends before 3:00 P.M. Reservations must be made in advance. Cost is $15 per person for people who are not members of the Shirley Historical Society. Additional tours may be arranged for groups of eight or more. Contact Shirley Historical Society, P.O. Box 217, Shirley, MA, 01464 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Shirley, MA web site page for Shirley Shaker Village
- National Park service page
- List of Shirley Shaker souvenir sales items
- page 191 from Shaker Dictionary