Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man: Beekeeping at Mount Lebanon

Advertising Flyer, “Honey, Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man”

Advertising Flyer, “Honey, Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man,” North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2003.20848.1.

The Shakers were at the forefront of beekeeping both in their New England communities and in the West. Early on they understood the importance of the role bees played in pollinating their crops and, of course, enjoyed the honey and made use of beeswax. Most of the documentation of beekeeping at Mount Lebanon involves Elder Giles B. Avery at the Church Family. Avery kept a number of hives at both Mount Lebanon and at Watervliet, NY. His “Journal Concerning Bees in the Second Order,” as well as his notations about bees in the Church Family daily journals and his personal diaries, provide a clear picture of him as a progressive beekeeper. He quickly adopted improvements in hive designs and was aggressive in his procurement and use of Italian queens as they became preferred for strong hives.

Elder Giles mentions placing his hives at several of the Mount Lebanon families, but does not mention doing so at the North Family. This suggests that the North Family had its own beekeeper. By the turn of the twentieth century that beekeeper was Sister Mazella Gallup. Whether the North Family beekeeping was done by the sisters earlier is not known at present, but evidence of the sisters’ involvement in the task is documented in photographs of the “Bee Garden” from the early 1900s.

Swarm Box

Swarm Box, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2727.1a,b, John Mulligan, photographer.

The swarm box was used by beekeepers to transport wild swarms of bees to their manufactured hives. When a swarm was located – usually hanging on a branch of a tree or bush – the back of the box was opened to receive the swarm. To get the swarm in the box either the swarm was shaken until the queen fell into the box or the beekeeper would reach into the swarm, retrieve the queen, and put her in the box. Once the queen was in the box the rest of the swarm would follow. The swarm box, made of pine and basswood with an oak handle, is covered with a finely woven linen to provide ventilation during transport. Once back at the hives the bees were transferred into a prepared hive. The two holes in the box apparently let the bees come and go until they decide to move into the new hive.

This swarm box was purchased by Shaker Museum founder John S. Williams, Sr., from Sister Frances Hall, the trustee at Hancock, MA, around 1948, from the “surplus” North Family items that had come to Hancock the year before when the last Shaker left Mount Lebanon.



A tool for everything

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Though a tool’s primary attribute is its function, sometimes the maker or user of a tool will take the time, usually in an expression of pride, to decorate it with paint or carving. The object presented here was left undecorated by its maker but has a memorable sculptural quality that is closely related to how it was used. The tool is a gauge made to mark out the position of mortises used in joining pieces of wooden window sash. Window sash – the movable part of a window – is composed of a frame with a top and bottom rail and two side pieces called stiles. Thinner horizontal and vertical pieces called muntins or mullions crisscross the frame to support the glazing when it is composed of more than a single piece of glass. The muntins are attached to the frame with mortise and tenon joints – the joint where a square or rectangular peg (tenon) is inserted into a square or rectangular hole (mortise). The rails and stiles of the frame are connected in the same manner but with larger mortises and tenons. When faced with making hundreds if not thousands of these joints (Shaker buildings have a lot of window) it must have been thought prudent to make a special tool for the job.

This sash gauge can make two different sets of marks on a piece of wood. One end of the gauge, fitted with two thin sharp blades set three-eighths of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that joined the rails and stiles; the other end of the gauge, with two blades set one-eighth of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that join the muntins to the frame. Marking joinery with a sharp knife blade is generally more accurate than using a pencil. This gauge is ergonomic, having specific places carefully carved to accommodate the thumb and forefinger when using either end.

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge (detail of D. R. stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Brother David Rowley, who was a cabinetmaker at the North Family for twenty years, made the gauge. He moved to the Church Family the summer of 1830 where he continued making furniture and window sashes until his death in 1855. His initials, “D. R.,” are stamped on the tool as they are on several woodworking planes, a saw, another adjustable marking gauge, and a set of saw horses in the Museum’s collection. Brother David was born in Sharon, Connecticut in 1779, and chose a career as a cabinetmaker in part due to his small stature (David stood 4’ 10 3/8” inches high) and his feeling that farming, his preferred occupation, would be “too heavy for [his] physical endurance.” He moved from Connecticut to New Lebanon, New York, where his uncle lived, married, and established his cabinetmaking business. He soon learned about the Shakers and being a person with an unsettled spiritual life, became more and more interested in them, until he “saw that they were both by precept & example, the true followers of Christ.” Within a few years he joined the Shakers.

Shakers, their mode of Worship

“Shakers, their mode of Worship.” (Hand-Colored Lithograph), D. W. Kellogg, Hartford, Connecticut,Ca. 1835, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1

The artist of a well known illustration of the Shakers worshiping in the Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon, NY, may have captured an image of Brother David. His stature apparently caught the attention of the artist who included a diminutive Shaker brother in his illustration. As a member of the North Family at Mount Lebanon, Brother David would have participated in the public meeting, the only meeting that the artist would have been allowed to attend.

While there are no known pieces of Shaker furniture that can be attributed absolutely to Brother David, he most assuredly was responsible for much of the early furniture that can be traced to the North Family. His tools help preserve his legacy.


Photo provides new documentation of a museum object

Photograph, Sister Sadie Maynard Standing behind a Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Photograph, Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens, North Family, Mount
Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1915, Shaker
Museum | Mount Lebanon

We recently wrote about a lawn bench in the Museum’s collection. Carved on its back rail is, “August  | North Family Shakers | 1914.” It was located in the yard between the North Family’s First Dwelling and the Sisters’ Workshop facing uphill to the public road. In the post we included a photograph of Sister Sadie Maynard standing behind the bench. Since then we received a gift of a collection of materials that had come from the North Family through the donor’s mother-in-law’s great grandmother, Margaret Fyfe (Fife in Shaker journals), including a photograph of Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens seated on the same bench. It is rare to have Shaker-era photographic documentation of pieces from the Museum’s collection. To have two such images is quite remarkable.

Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens was one of the first converts resulting from Elder Frederick W. Evans’s 1871 lecture tour in England. Sister Rosetta’s father, a designer of paisley shawls and a weaver who was one of the founders of the Humanitarian Brotherhood, was apparently very receptive to the American communist who had come to lecture in London – enough so to send his 11-year old daughter to America with the elder. When the “Atlantic” docked in New York and Elder Frederick disembarked, by his side was little Annie who became and remained a Shaker her whole life.

Margaret Fyfe, who either took or was given the photograph, first came to the Shakers at the North Family with Amanda Deyo, a Universalist minister, vice-president of the Universal Peace Union, and a prime mover in the annual peace convention held in Wiley’s Grove near Salt Point, Dutchess County, NY – a meeting the Shakers attended. Margaret boarded with the North Family from early spring through late fall each year from 1910 until about 1920. She was enough of a consistent presence during those years to be noted as “Sister Margaret” on occasion in one family diary.


The Shakers produce a very early version of the wheelchair

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8417.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The Shakers made a sincere effort to accommodate the needs of all members of their community, including young, old, and disabled people. This wheelchair is a fine example of endeavors to ensure members with special needs could participate in community life. The chair, while not a suitable vehicle for a Shaker to transport himself or herself outdoors on flagstone walks, was certainly useful in moving around within the dwelling house. Several items in the Museum’s collection speak to the care of those with specific physical needs: an orthopedic shoe, canes, and a walker.  

This modified rocking chair was made at Watervliet or possibly Mount Lebanon. While it seems odd at first glance that the chair would have both rockers and wheels, most all arm chairs used in Shaker communities would have had rockers; side chairs with arms were unusual during the first half of the nineteenth century, well before the first patent was taken out on a self-propelled wheelchair in 1869. The date for the conversion of the rocker into a wheelchair is not known, but it was probably done in the first half of the nineteenth century. All of the metal parts for the chair are hand-forged and no commercial fittings were used. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon had among them both spinning wheel makers and wagon makers so fabricating the wheels for the chair would not have been particularly difficult. The wheels on the chair had “tires” made of leather that fit into half-round grooves in the outside of their rims.  The chair, evidenced from two notches in the middle front stretcher (rung), was once fitted with some type of foot rest attached to that stretcher. 

The wheelchair was acquired in 1957 at Hancock Shaker Village from Eldress Emma B. King, but was, according to the Museum’s accession records, one of the thousands of items brought to Hancock from Mount Lebanon when the latter community closed. 

Though we don’t know who this wheelchair was made for, another mystery is why the middle front stretcher, the one from which the wheelchair’s footrest was hung, is so close to the front seat stretcher. This is a unique stretcher placement for a Shaker chair. There is no evidence that this stretcher was added later and no evidence that there had been middle stretcher where one would usually be found. If the stretcher placement indicates that the chair was built originally as a wheelchair, then why the vestigial rockers? Share your guesses in the comments!