Writings on the Walls: The Brethren’s Workshop

Brethrens Workshop

The Brethren’s Workshop, or Brick Shop, circa 1920’s. North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York. Photographer: William F. Winter. Source: Historic American Buildings Survey.

The buildings of the North Family are full of clues pointing to past uses by the Shakers, from slots in floors and ceilings for belts that once powered machinery, to the peg boards that still line the walls of many rooms. One of the most widespread and mysterious of clues at the site involves the wealth of writing, recording, and material remnants on the walls of the site’s oldest extant structure, the Brethren’s Workshop, built in 1829.

In 1985-6 Dr. Michael Coe of Yale University and Dr. Ernest Wiegand of Norwalk Community College led the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village Archaeological Project to document, inventory, and assess structures and items found at the North Family historic site. A segment of that project focused on “superficial and subsurface archaeological field investigations at several sites,” which included graffiti found in the Brethren’s Workshop. The report included a catalog of graffiti, with measured drawings, research, and condition reports.

In the summer of 2016, the “Brethren’s Workshop: Writing On the Walls” project was launched to fill in the narrative gaps surrounding the wall remnants through research and new photography. The result was a new graffiti catalog building upon the original, with narrative analysis detailing what these historic remnants tell us about the Brethren’s Workshop and the people who worked and / or lived there. Support for the project came from a Vision Grant from Humanities New York.

The Brethren’s Workshop, or “Brick Shop” as it was called by Shakers, was constructed in 1829, when the corner stone was laid on April 27. From that point through the North Family’s closure in 1947, the workshop was home to Shaker Brothers and Sisters, hired workers and their families, and has been host to carpenters, teenage trespassers, archaeologists, guided tour groups, and exhibitions.

In its earliest days, the Workshop was used as space to do laundry by Sisters, and by Brothers as the center of their broom-making, fruit-selling, and seed businesses, the latter of which eventually grew into a major operation with trade routes in every direction from New York City to the western frontier. Over time, the range of trades plied inside the Workshop expanded to include shoemaking, constructing coffins, cabinetry and other woodwork, printing, carpet beaters (also known as rug whips), poultry, and likely more beyond the recorded history.

Hand print in black ink

Hand print in black ink, found on the third floor’s printing shop room.

In the basement floors, coffins, eggs, fruits, and vegetables were stored, in particular a “nice apple cellar” recorded as built on November 5, 1891. This supported the apple-selling business, whose remnants appear in the basement’s northwest and east spaces. On the first floor, woodworking went on in the carpentry shop. The second floor was used for a variety of purposes, including making carpet beaters and brooms, but the primary work there was the seed business, and seeds were stored, counted, and packaged for sale there. Based on graffiti and interviews with a former hired man who resided in the workshop, chickens may have been kept on the second floor. Finally, the third floor contained the printing and shoemaking shops. Most of the graffiti and markings found in the workshop reflects this layout.

Brother Curtis White with a hired man in the kitchen garden

Brother Curtis White (left) with a hired man in the kitchen garden, circa 1930s. The workshop can be seen in the background.

Shakers were not alone in undertaking all of these different types of work. Especially following the Civil War, the Shakers experienced labor shortages due to loss of (primarily male) members and therefore employed large numbers of hired men, or “hirelings,” in various supplemental roles; in 1893, the North Family journal records 11 male and 31 female resident Shakers.

Hired men were housed both in the upper floors of the nearby Farm Deacon’s Shop, but also in the Brethren’s Workshop itself, including in some cases with their families; Ashly Pratt, a former hired man who was interviewed in 1986, described arriving around 1922, moving into the workshop and joining three other hired hands and families. He described cold, bare conditions, having only cold running water for washing, and a portable chemical toilet. Other hired men’s families included the Face family (one of whom, Elroy, would go on to become a Major League Baseball player and pioneer modern relief pitching), the Gallaghers, and the Griswolds. Also living in the workshop were visitors to the North Family.

Wallpaper remnants

Wallpaper remnants, found on the second floor.

One notable example of a visitor living temporarily with the Shakers is that of Peter Neagoe, a Romanian writer and artist who’d spent a portion of his younger years at the North Family, where he apparently designed marketing material for Shaker products. Later, he and his wife stayed in the workshop several summers intermittently from 1912 through the 1920s, and eventually purchased a home in New Lebanon. It is likely that it was the Neagoes who were responsible for the wallpaper found on the workshop’s second floor, as the Family journal records Neagoe making renovations preparatory for his wife’s arrival.

The story of the Brethren’s Workshop is of the many different people who called it home, Shaker and non-Shaker alike: their lives, their work, and their marks left at the North Family. The building housed generations of Shakers, and later non-Shakers, who worked together to make the North Family operate as an efficient and prosperous economic enterprise. The marks, sketches, designs, and recordings all tell a very clear story about its utilitarian use.

This month, members of the public are seeing the results of the project and exploring these remnants of the past up close and personal. A tour will occur on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 3PM. You can register for the tour online here. Following both programs, the full report will be made available for download online.

 

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The Brethren’s Workshop

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. September 23, 2016. Rrom the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

This past summer and fall, photographer Benjamin Swett spent time at Mount Lebanon photographing the landscape and interiors. On his initial visits, he found himself drawn by the way light moved and changed in the corridors, stairwells, and rooms of the building known as the Brethren’s Workshop, and he began to explore the different effects of light on interior spaces. “Studying these effects on the interiors brings one closer to the states of mind of these now-remote people, and spending time with the architecture puts the deliberate, practical, yet simultaneously spiritual and otherworldly mind-set of the Shakers into an accessible perspective,” Swett said.

The 1820s were an amazing time for the Shakers. Their missionary work, both in New York and New England, and as far afield as Kentucky and Ohio, had brought large numbers into the Church. In response to this rapid growth, over the next decade the Shakers embarked on a construction spree, designing buildings to be larger and more substantial than prior ones, building out of stone and brick instead of wood. Between 1824 and 1837, the Shakers built a new meetinghouse, a stone grist mill, a brick workshop, and a brick trustees’ office at Mount Lebanon; the round barn and a new brick dwelling house at Hancock; a brick trustees’ office at Watervliet; and one of their most ambitious and substantial projects – the Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield, NH. When one places all of these buildings and more not mentioned on a timeline, a clear story emerges about the Shakers’ momentum during this time and their feeling of being a church for eternity.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Buildings Survey, N. E. Baldwin, photographer.

In the midst of this boom, in 1829, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon’s North Family built a men’s workshop and family wash house, later known at the Brethren’s Workshop. The new workshop had a large over-shot waterwheel in its cellar that powered a variety of machinery. Despite the masculine name, probably thirty percent of the building was used originally by North Family sisters to wash, dry, and iron clothes. (Workshops for men and women in the same building were not uncommon, even though the Shakers were generally separated by gender.)

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Brick Shop (interior of seed shop), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey, Charles C. Adams, photographer.

The Brethren’s Workshop has three stories, with a basement and a sub-basement and a substantial attic. The building functioned on all six floors, with nearly 17,000 square feet of usable space. The lower cellar housed the bottom of the wheel pit for the two-story water wheel, a cistern for water collected for laundry, and probably some equipment for washing, dying, bleaching, and soap making. The upper cellar housed the main power shaft for the waterwheel and connected through line-shafts and pulleys to heavier woodworking machinery, as well as the wash room for the laundry. The first floor was apparently used for smaller water-powered machinery for men’s work and the ironing room for the sisters. Much of the second floor was occupied by the North Family’s seed shop (pictured above) where they dried, cleaned, sorted, stored, and put up garden seeds into envelopes and wooden boxes for distribution by the family’s peddlers. The third floor held a shoe shop and probably workshops for the family elders and a variety of other industries: hat making, printing, tailoring, and whip making. The attic provided space for drying clothes in rainy and winter weather and probably for drying garden seeds. The Brethren’s Workshop was fitted with an elevator, or more accurately a dumb waiter since it did not transport people. The counterbalanced lift could bring wet clothes from the wash room to the attic for drying and back down to the ironing room when needed. There was no access to the lift from the floors associated with men’s work so apparently was primarily for the use of the sisters.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Historic American Buildings Survey, A. K. Mosley, delineator.

Over time the activities in the Brethren’s Workshop changed. In the late 1870s the Shakers relocated their family laundry to the south end of the 1854 Wood House leaving unused space in the workshop. Some of that space was immediately put to use storing potatoes and cabbages. In the late 1880s an apple storage cellar was constructed in the sub-basement of the building. Little by little shops were abandoned. The North Family brothers stopped making their own shoes and hats. The seed business was discontinued and that shop was used for making rug whips. When the rug whip business ceased, that shop, like several others, was left untouched and used for storage. Over the years people lived in the Brick Shop as well. Hired men were also housed in the building in the twentieth century.

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Slate roof and soffit repair, 2011.

The Shakers left Mount Lebanon in 1947 and by the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair. In 2002 part of the building became home to a team of historic preservation architects who spent a year doing research and writing an historic structures report on all of the North Family Buildings as part of a Save America’s Treasures grant. In 2004 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the North Family site. For two weeks during the summer of that year the museum, with the help of fifteen teenagers enrolled in the Landmark Volunteer Program, cleared the building of non-Shaker items that had collected there over the years. In 2011 and 2012 the museum, funded by the 1876 Foundation and in collaboration with Boston’s North Bennet Street School’s preservation carpentry program, completed extensive repairs to the Brick Shop’s slate roof, chimneys, gutters, leaders, and leader-heads, and unusual plaster covered soffits.

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. October 3, 2016. From the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is working on ways to open this building up to the public in 2017, beginning with Writings on the Walls, tours that look at graffiti left there by the Shakers and those who came after them. In the meantime, Swett’s photographs of the Brethren’s Workshop are on view at the Shaker Bar in Hudson, NY. Join us this Saturday, November 19, 2016 for a reception for the artist. All are welcome. Members show their membership cards for a free drink. Prints are provided courtesy of BCB Art and these limited editions are for sale at the gallery and at the Shaker Museum | Museum’s online store.  A portion of the proceeds from each sale benefit the museum.