‘Tis the season for gardening

It is that time of year again – time, or past time for planting gardens. The North Family at Mount Lebanon generally began planting their gardens with hearty plants in early May. The amount of vegetables planted both for seed production and to feed the largely vegetarian family was staggering. For example, on May 12, 1886, the keeper of the garden journal at the North Family noted that the gardeners:

Finished covering the Yellow Danvers Onions in the North Garden & set out The Yellow Dutch along the north wall in the West Sand knoll lot; they filled 10 rows with one row of White Elephant Potatoes next [to] the wall; this finished the onion setting; sowed 14 rows of Parsnips lower side of First garden. Began planting Potatoes in the Upper Cabin lot, plowing the South garden, &c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c., Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.990.1. Staff photograph.

These rows could be up to one hundred feet long. To keep the rows straight and spaced properly, the Shakers, like many others, used string to set their seeds, onion sets, and seed potatoes. The two string reels in the Shaker Museum’s collection were likely used for this purpose. Both reels seem to have been made by the Shakers. One reel could be set on the ground and anchored with a weight. The string was drawn out of a mouth that kept the string near the ground. The second reel had an iron spike at the end of its shaft to allow it to be anchored in the ground. Both reels have crank handles to rewind the string. 

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c., Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.1220.1. Staff photograph.

While the reels certainly could have been used for planting, another possible use for such reels should be mentioned. The Shakers – all four families that raised garden seeds for sale – would have grown onions with the intention of letting them go to seed so they could offer onion seed to their customers. The seed pods grow at the top of the stalks and when the pods become full they tend to bend the stalks over. That works well for the onion trying to reseed itself, but is not so great for gathering the seed. The Shakers “lined their onions,” that is, they ran two lines of string along either side of the stalks to keep them from falling over. The keeper of the North Family garden journal mentioned that on June 24, 1880 they weeded the parsnips, “having finished the Onion lining,” and about a month later recorded that they were “raising the onion lines.” Apparently by the end of June the onions had grown enough to need to have the stalks supported and by the end of July the lines needed to be raised higher. By the beginning of September they had “finished cutting the Red Onion put it in the garden house lofts.” Since generally onions are “pulled” to be eaten, this must refer to the cutting and drying of the onion seed. 

Agriculture was such an important part of the Shakers’ daily life; it is always enjoyable to find objects in the Museums’ collection that are related to that work. Good luck with this season’s gardens. 

 

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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.

 

It’s not what you think it is

Bull Blinder

Bull Blinder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1850-1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.4625.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

Sometimes objects in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection are just plain fun, as with the object at hand – a leather contraption that seems as if it would be more at home in an Icelandic legend or on a Viking battlefield than in a Shaker community. (It’s especially fun to solicit guesses from visitors as to the purpose of this object) The device, however, is a perfect fit for a Shaker farm. It was called a bull blinder and was placed over the head of a bull to prevent him from seeing anything. Bulls are well-known for their unpredictable and sometime aggressive temperament. Moving these one-ton, often dangerously-horned animals from place to place always has to be done with caution, and when potential mates or competing bulls are in view, the challenge increases. When Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the bull blinder from the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, Eldress Emma B. King told the Museum staff that  it was used, “to prevent the bull from trundling the cow.” Trundling or not, Carl Friesch, a Midwestern collector of antique farm equipment, explained, “When a bull’s head is down, that’s when he does damage.” A commonly used commercially-made bull blinder, patented in the 1920s by Henry Masbruch for the Russell Manufacturing Company, Platteville, Wisconsin, had small slits at the bottom of the eye cups allowing the bull to see to graze but kept his head upright when moving around – a position generally minimizing any mischief. The Shakers’ blinder does not have slits and relied solely on not allowing the bull to see anything as he was moved from barn to pasture or pasture to pasture. At the North Family, Mount Lebanon, bulls were kept in the east end of the Great Stone Barn. Bulls had a separate doorway leading past as few cows as possible and directly into what was called the “bull pasture” – a pasture enclosed with a substantial stone wall. 

 

Bull in Commercial Blinder

Bull in Commercial Blinder, Rural Ohio, 2016, photograph by Gloria Jarrett, from her blog, Amish Faith, Family, and Furrow,  http://www.amishfaithfamilyfurrow.com/2016/04/beware-bull.html

 

“[T]he first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.”

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon recently received a small collection of photographs made in and around the town of New Lebanon, New York by an as yet unidentified photographer. Among the photographs is a print of Brother Levi Shaw (1819-1908) standing behind a McCormick binder at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. This photograph was published on page 115 in The Shaker Image by Elmer Ray Pearson and Julia Neal (1974). The caption for the photograph includes a notation written on the original photograph, from which the published copy was taken, that reads: “Br. Levi Shaw of North Family, Mount Lebanon, N. Y. Arranging to buy the first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.” In the second annotated edition of The Shaker Image, prepared by Dr. Magda Gabor-Hotchkiss, she identifies the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, as the owner of the original image bearing that inscription. The Historical Society does not supply either a date or photographer for their copy of the image.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24192.1

The McCormick binder was part of a long line of grain harvesting machines developed by Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884). His original mechanical reaper was a horse-drawn machine that cut grain and gathered an appropriate amount together to be hand-tied into a sheaf with a piece of twine or straw. A number of sheaves, usually twelve, were leaned against each other with grain at the top to form a tent-like structure called a stook or shock. When fully dry, the sheaves were taken to the thresher to have the grain removed from the straw and the chaff from the kernels. McCormick’s reaper was first marketed in 1831 and was a huge improvement over the use of sickles, scythes, and cradles for harvesting grains. In 1884 the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company offered its first machine that added a binding operation to the cutting and gathering done by the reaper. The machine, a reaper-binder, or usually just called a binder, had been invented in 1872 by Charles Baxter Withington.  Many improvements were made by various mechanics before McCormick’s machine was available in 1884. McCormick’s binder used twine and a knotting mechanism to tie the grain into sheaves. The sheaves were dropped on the ground to be gathered into stooks.

An attempt to date this photograph has netted inconclusive but enlightening results. The McCormick company’s first offering of a binder in 1884 and Brother Levi’s death in 1908 provides a wide bracket for dating this photograph.  Records of daily events at the North Family tell us that in 1891 the Shakers purchased a binder on August 1st – “Buy Reaper & Binder $145.” This is the first mention of purchasing a binder in the records to which we have access. If we assume that the comment from the copy of the photograph from the Western Reserve Historical Society is correct, then it is possible that the photograph dates from 1891. However, the binder purchased in 1891 may have been made by another company and the inscription is wrong. Few of the photographs in the collection from which this photograph came are dated. Of the ones that are dated, the earliest is 1894. An inquiry to the “askmccormick” reference desk at the Wisconsin Historical Society resulted in the information that the font style used on the McCormick name plate on this binder was used between 1898 and 1903. We will have to be satisfied with a circa 1900 date for the photograph until documentation of the date the North Family purchased specifically a McCormick binder is discovered.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder at the Shaker Swamp Meadow, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24193.1

In addition to the rather well known image of the Brother Levi and the McCormick binder at the North Family, a second, and possibly previously unknown photograph is included in the collection that shows Brother Levi and the binder working in the North Family’s swamp meadow. This piece of land runs along the east side of New York Route 22 just north of the Shaker’s stone grist mill. The field has now reverted to swamp but after the Shakers had under-drained the land they grew hay, grains, potatoes, onions, and even planted an orchard on the land. This photograph shows the binder in cutting and binding mode whereas the first photograph shows it in transport mode.

While the creator of this photograph has not been identified it seems likely that it was a local man named Will S. Potter or possibly someone in his family. Potter made a number of photographs of the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Most of them were reproduced as postcards in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Many of these postcards had titles, locations, and sometimes Potter’s name written on the negative so that when printed it created a white hand-written description on the postcard. Some of the images in the collection from which the binder photographs came had titles written in a similar manner. These written titles are consistent in style to Will Potter’s postcards but the handwriting is different, causing us to think that possibly someone such as Potter’s wife or photographic assistant may have done the titles for the postcards – if indeed Potter is the photographer. More about that another day.