Apostasy and carpentry: The tale of a shoemaker’s bench

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Shoemaker’s Bench, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12839.1.

As shoemakers’ benches go, this Shaker example is a luxury version of a basic workbench. It has ample drawers for tools and a back rest and padded leather seat. Many of these benches only have trays fastened to the bench top to hold tacks, nails, and shoe pegs, with maybe a single drawer slung underneath for tools. The seat is usually carved into the top of the bench without much or any padding. Shoemakers sat low on their benches as they used their laps for much of their work – the knees being a suitable vise for holding something as irregularly shaped as a shoe or boot.

The quality of this bench speaks to why its proper name is a shoemaker’s bench rather than a “cobbler’s bench.” Although the terms shoemaker and cobbler are now used interchangeably, historically a shoemaker refered to the trained tradesperson who made shoes and boots, whereas a cobbler, as Webster informed people in his dictionary (1900 edition), was “A mender of shoes … a clumsy workman.”  This is much like what has happened to the differentiation between a tinsmith and a tinker – the tinsmith being the maker of tin ware and the tinker “the itinerant mender of domestic tin utensils … a clumsy workman; a botcher.” That being cleared up, this shoemaker’s bench has more to tell us about the Shakers than that they were well-shod by trained artisans.

On the bottom of one of the small drawers is a faint and partly obliterated inscription that appears once to have clearly read, “Dec. 1st 18__ Made by Richard B. Woodrow.” Richard Bushnell Woodrow was a member of the Second Order of Mount Lebanon’s Church Family (now referred to as the Center Family). He was born March 5, 1828 in Philadelphia. His mother Sarah Woodrow was a member of an experimental community in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That community was founded in 1826 as the “Friendly Association of Mutual Interest” by as many as 300 followers of the English social reformer, Robert Owen. The community’s first members settled in the house that had been George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge. They wrote a constitution that committed members to industrious work and to share equally in the profits of that work. They had a commitment to equality between men and women. The experiment did not make it through the first year as a result of conflict between the Association members and the surrounding communities. As members looked for another opportunity to live in, some found their way to the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Eventually as many as 30 of them came to live at Mount Lebanon’s North Family. Shakers such as John and Levi Shaw; John, Deborah, and Anna Dodgson; Abel, Israel, Sarah, and Jane Knight; Tabitha and Maria Lapsley; George Wickersham; Clawson Middleton; and Sarah Woodrow, satisfied with their new home, lived out their lives as Shakers, most of them as stalwarts of the North Family.

Three-year-old Richard came with his then twenty-four-old mother and was eventually placed in the children’s order at the Center Family as soon as he could be separated from his mother. At age 11, in an accounting of membership in the Church and Center families, he is listed among the boys at the Center Family. At age 21 he is listed among the brothers as a 5 foot 10 inch tall carpenter and mill-wright.  Brother Richard’s work was varied but generally of a mechanical nature.  In 1848 and 1849, he set up a foot-powered lathe, repaired the family’s waterwheel, built a wash-mill, put up eave troughs, made a “great cask,” framed the dairy house, laid floors; made portable bedsteads, a yarn stretcher, and a seeder for beet seeds; tore down the family’s old mill and framed a new one “pretty much alone.” In October, 1849 the Lebanon Shakers were confronted with a lack of space in their main graveyard. They decided to use an earlier graveyard to compensate. In doing so they dug up the bones of Father Joseph Meacham to reposition his grave. Brother Richard made the coffin to receive his bones for the re-interment.  This kind of work continued steadily until February 2, 1853 when “Warren Chase, Richard Woodrow, Louisa S[ears] and Fanny Crocker conclude[d] to forsake their Father’s house & seek asylum in some other region.” This was not Richard’s first decision to leave Shaker life. At age eighteen he had been one of eight young brothers and sisters who departed the Center Family in one of the most devastating rebellions the Shakers ever experienced. Unlike the other seven who left, Richard returned less than a month later, begging a new privilege, “after having humbly acknowledged his mistake in having left.”

Richard’s loss was devastating to the family. It was noted in a journalist’s commentary: “Richard was their principal carpenter & Joiner there, and left a heavy & important job, a large barn, partly framed, & has left no regular draft of it; and someone will have a hard task to get a clear idea of it, and doubtless the Chh will be obliged to hire it done.” Just prior to leaving Richard had completed making the 300 diagonal braces that were to be used in the new dairy barn. Louisa Sears and Fanny Crocker were caretakers of the young girls – another difficult job to fill. Warren, Richard, and Fanny had all lived together since childhood.

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Photograph (cropped), Center Family Barn (1853), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, James Irving, Photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2000.21522.1. This is the barn that Richard Woodrow was in charge of framing when he left the Shakers.

Richard’s life in the world is sketchily documented. It appears that he and Louisa (or Loiza) Sears married in Burlington Township, New Jersey two days after leaving the Shakers. [Burlington County, NJ, Marriage Records]  Although  the particular circumstances and not, at present, known, Louisa Woodrow died on July 2, 1857 in Gloucester, New Jersey – according to recorded “New Jersey, Deaths, 1670-1988.” Two years after Louisa’s death, Richard married Elizabeth M. Paul in Clarksboro, New Jersey. They had two children, Mary L. Woodrow, born in 1863, and Howard H. Woodrow, born in 1868. Around this time Richard moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a carpenter and eventually managed a hardware store – jobs fitting of his Shaker training. Richard Woodrow died in the city of his birth on March 6, 1909 having lost Elizabeth five years earlier. They are both buried in the Mickleton Friend’s Burial Bround, Upper Greenwich, New Jersey, suggesting that he and Elizabeth were Quakers.

Although Richard’s post-Shaker life is certainly not completely documented, it is rare that it is possible to trace the lives of those leaving the Shakers to see how their Shaker life may have informed the remainder of their lives.

The shoemaker’s  bench was purchased August 5, 1961 at an auction of Shaker items collected from the Church and Center families at Mount Lebanon and owned by Darrow School. The auction provided funds to aid in the conversion of the Shakers’ 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library.

There is more to this story. The shoemaker’s bench is only one a half-dozen objects in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon that appears to be connected to the life and work of Richard Bushnell Woodrow. The rest of these objects will be discussed is subsequent articles in this blog.

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