“The Giants’ Mile-Stone”

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Photograph of the Giants’ Mile Stone, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1905, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2016.24194.1

Located along an old road that once ran down the side of the mountain at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, is an unusually large stone standing higher than any around it. Although it is now difficult to find a way there, it was a feature that was well known to Shakers and non-Shakers in the 19th century. The recently acquired photograph shown here, made by an as yet unidentified photographer, was titled by him or her, the “Giants’ Mile-Stone (Shaker Road).” The early American traveler was accustomed to seeing pieces of stone along the major roads carved with letters and numerals to indicate the number of miles to or from a particular location. While the old Shaker Road would not have had such markers, it did have one extraordinary marker. The Shakers, while we have never seen it referenced in their records, must have shared some sense that this stone was unusual and that it was reminiscent of the common mile markers. When they constructed a stone wall along the south side of the road and easily could have saved considerable labor by incorporating the giant stone into their wall, they chose instead to make a niche leaving the stone standing between the wall and the roadbed for all to see. While the roadbed has nearly totally eroded the stone and wall clearly remain.

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Map of Shaker Road and Location of Wall and Giants’ Mile-Stone, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon

Beyond the story presented by the photographer and the location of the Shakers’ wall, the stone may have another story. All throughout New England there are examples of special standing stones and other stone structures that many believe are remnants left by those who were here before European explorers and settlers. Standing stones, balanced rocks, perched and rocking boulders, stacked stones, stone chambers, and other apparently non-geologic features dot the landscape for those who know what to look for. Whether stood on its end by glacial actions or by man-powered labor, the Giants’ Mile-Stone is thought to have had some special place in the lives of pre-European inhabitants in the area. Near the end of the last decade Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was involved with local historians and interested hikers in exploring the area around the stone and its relationship to the road and to other nearby Shaker features.

For those interested in knowing more about early stone features in the New England landscape we suggest looking at Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization by James W. Mavor, Jr. and Byron E. Dix published in 1989.

Note that the stone is located on private property and arrangements must be made in advance to see it.

Popcorn ball press

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Fig 1: Popcorn Ball Press and Accessories, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6589.1 (press) and 1953.6590.1-.3 (cylinders)

Shaping popcorn into balls when it is covered in hot sugar syrup or molasses is hard on the hands, especially in quantity. This popcorn ball press relieved that discomfort and made consistently sized balls.

Using the press was pretty simple – the metal cylinders were filled with sticky popcorn and then placed on the base of the press. The arm was pushed down until the two recesses met, trapping a perfectly round ball between them. The finished popcorn balls were then either served or wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper to be eaten or sold later. Though there’s no documentation of the Shakers selling popcorn balls, the three accompanying metal cylinders suggest a vigorous production.

The Museum’s 1953 accession records for the popcorn ball press provide two significant pieces of information: That the press was made by Canterbury Brother Alexander Cochran (sometimes Cochrane), and that it was used for making “molasses popcorn balls.” Brother Alexander Y. Cochran was born May 14, 1848. Much of Brother Alexander’s life story eludes us, but we know he was the natural brother of Eldress Dorothea T. Cochran at Canterbury. Eldress Dorothea was born in 1844 in Duntalker, Scotland. While the 1860 census gives Alexander’s birthplace as Massachusetts, it is likely his parents came to this country between 1844 and 1848. Brother Alexander was second elder in the Canterbury Church Family and worked closely with Ministry Elder Henry Blinn on managing correspondence and financial matters pertaining to the publication of the Manifesto up until May, 1890, when he decided to leave the Shakers. Little more is known about his post-Shaker life, except that an Alexander Y. Cochrane of Waverly, Massachusetts, was granted patent 584,922 on July 22, 1897 for an improvement in a “yielding wire seat frame” and that he was, in 1920, married to Louise F. Cochrane. Among Eldress Dorothy’s vital statistics it is recorded that she had a brother living in Waverly, Massachusetts, so it’s likely this is the same Alexander Cochran. We don’t know whether the popcorn ball press was a harbinger of Brother Alexander’s inventive nature, but his departure from the Shakers in 1890 does provide a date before which the press was made and used.

There are two scenarios for the Canterbury Shakers popcorn ball adventures  – one, that they made traditional blackstrap molasses popcorn balls and the second, that molasses, in this case, refers to maple molasses. Any readers with special knowledge of the history of popcorn balls in New England are encouraged to weigh in.

Maple Molasses: About two miles from the Shaker Village at Canterbury, the Shakers had an 800-tree sugar bush that they tapped for over a half a century. The trees produced over 50 barrels of sap per day during sugaring season and the sugar house workers could turn that into 50 gallons of syrup or 350 pounds of maple sugar. The Canterbury sisters made a variety of maple candies to sell from the sugar and it is reasonable to think that maple molasses popcorn balls may have been among their offerings for sale. A simple recipe for maple molasses popcorn balls can be found at here.

Blackstrap Molasses: In the 1880s the cane sugar and molasses jockeyed for position as the more expensive sweetener. Cane sugar had historically been the more expensive of the two, but as improvements in processing sugar cane were made it eventually became quite inexpensive and a premium emerged for those who preferred the taste of blackstrap molasses. If you have not tasted molasses popcorn, think Cracker Jacks, America’s first “The More You Eat the More You Want” junk food. Its flavor is an acquired taste (and today’s corn syrup Cracker Jacks do not do the original justice), but apparently once a devotee, it was greatly preferred by some in some foods – popcorn balls being one of them. There are a number of recipes available for making molasses popcorn balls. One five-star recipe for “bare-bones popcorn balls” that uses just popped corn, molasses, and refined sugar can be found here. The final step in this recipe is to “eat whatever sticks to your fingers.”  Bon appetit!

 

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Molasses Popcorn Balls from Tori Avey: Tori’s Kitchen website.

 

A box in search of its rastrum

Edward Langford came to live at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon at age 11, but eloped in 1892 with Inez Platt, a 20-year old sister who lived at the Second Family.

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Case for Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1829, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11613.1

Almost 70 years later, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received from relatives of the Langfords a small box, which at the time of the gift held a single ivory toothpick. The bottom of the box is made of a single piece of wood, hollowed out to create the cavity that held the toothpick. The cavity is only one-quarter inch wide at one end but widens abruptly, one and one-half inches from the other end to just over one-half inch. It took a number of years and the appearance of other such boxes to understand that it was not made to hold a toothpick but rather was the case for a Shaker rastrum. Rastrums are pens with multiple points used to scribe lined staffs for music manuscripts. The Shakers wrote down thousands of their unique songs, hymns, and anthems using a music system in which the letters “a” through “g,” instead of the now-common round notes, were written on a standard four or five line staff. This box once held one of these pens. The bottom of the cavity is lined with a brilliant yellow paper and at the wide end of the paper it is possible to see five small evenly-spaced dots where the five tips of the pen came to rest when place in its case.

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Music Staff Pen and Case, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1820s, Private Collection.

Several of these pens have letterpress printed instructions pasted either on the outside of the case or inside the cavity, as shown here in an example from a private collection. “This pen may be used either side up: – but if it will not make good lines without bearing on too hard, it needs some repair.” This instruction is followed by the initials “I. N. Y.” Brother Isaac Newton Youngs (1793-1865) lived at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon from 1807 until his death. Brother Isaac is described by a Shaker brother and friend in a eulogy, “His mechanical genius was remarkable. In him was combined, The Carpenter, Cabinetmaker, Clock and Watch-maker; which obligation he filled to the last. He many years did the Tailoring, and when needed, could turn Machinest, Mason, or anything that could promote the general good. Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to Brother Isaac…” Much of Brother Isaac’s success in making those conveniences (and much of what, at times, made him challenging for others) was his commitment to perfection and precision.

Brother Isaac was also, for many years, the family scribe – keeping the daily family journal, spiritual records, and correspondence. He had a passionate interest in music and made special efforts to standardize Shaker singing. Shakers did not use musical instruments to keep them on pitch during Brother Isaac’s lifetime. To keep the Shakers “in union” so they would all sing the same music in the same way, he likely developed two instruments – one, a toneometer, used to set the pitch, and a modeometer, used to set the speed. In 1843 he printed a small book of music instruction to help others understand these concepts and to teach the Shaker system of letter-notation.

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Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1835, Private Collection. Purchased at Willis Henry Auction 2013, Lot 77.

The five-pointed music pen – a tool he would have found most useful in recording hundreds, if not thousands, of Shaker songs – seems a natural outgrowth of his precise mechanical nature, his obligation to record keeping, and his interest in music. Brother Isaac was also skilled in making the pens from coin silver sold by Shakers at Mount Lebanon and Watervliet. Another example from a private collection is shown above.

While the pen itself remains missing, its case provides more about its history. On the outside of the case is written, “Sarah Bates Nov. 29th 1829.” Sister Sarah Bates was also a resident at the Church Family. She and Brother Isaac were nearly the same age. She was born November 29, 1792; Isaac was born July 4, 1793. Both first lived at the Shakers’ Watervliet community, Isaac beginning his life at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon in 1807 and Sister Sarah coming there in 1811. Sister Sarah Bates was a school teacher, likely a scribe for the family, and is known to have written several songs. It seem perfectly reasonable that Brother Isaac made a music pen and its case for Sister Sarah and the fact that it is dated on her thirty-seventh birthday suggests it was a very useful gift. It’s not known how Edward Langford or his descendants came into possession of the box.

More than a half-dozen of Brother Isaac’s music pens survive in private and public collections. There is always some hope that someday a Shaker rastrum, if not THE Shaker rostrum that once filled this case, might complete this story for Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.