A mysterious chip off the old block

In today’s post there is some fact, some conjecture, some plain old fanciful thinking, and we hope you will share your knowledge and opinions with us.

The item we present for your consideration is a small (5/8” h x 1 3/8” wide x 1 1/8” d) piece of worked white marble. It is smoothed but not highly polished and has been cut to a truncated pyramid atop a rectangle. On the underside of the stone is the pencil inscription, “Shirley Holy Hill rec’d 1844.”

The piece was catalogued as a gift from Eldress Emma B. King to the Shaker Museum through founder John S. Williams, Sr. in 1957. It appears to have been among a number of items acquired by the Museum that were in storage at Hancock following the closing of Mount Lebanon in 1947. At this time Mr. Williams was mostly purchasing items from the Shakers. It is not known whether or not this item was a gift from the Eldress because she felt it had some religious significance (as was the case with gifts of pieces of fabric associated with Mother Ann Lee and the fountain stone from Canterbury). Whatever the case – the real question is: “Just what is this thing?”

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Photograph of the Shirley Fountain Stone as It Stood on at the End of the Fountain, Shirley, Massachusetts, 1897. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1971.17123.1, (copy received from Erhart Muller in 1971).

The clues are few, but clues nonetheless. The inscription places this piece of marble in the same year that a fountain stone was erected on the Holy Hill of Peace – Shirley’s designated feast ground, a plot of land used for outdoor worship between about 1842 and 1852. At this time there was a great outpouring of spiritual communications between those in the spirit world and those here on earth. The feast ground was usually established on a high point of community land. The land was cleared and fenced. A shelter house was built, a roughly hexagonal fountain was defined by a short fence, and the fountain stone erected at one end of the hexagon. From this “fountain,” waters flowed directly from heaven to earth and Shakers bathed in these spiritual waters to wash away sin. The date and inscription on the little piece of marble associate it with the Shirley feast ground.

The lettering and erection of the fountain stone at Shirley is described in a series of entries from various Shaker journals:

July 10, 1844: Elder Joseph Myrick was here also to give information that he had finished lettering the stone for the Holy Hill of Peace, when it was agreed to have it erected on Monday next 15 of July.

July 11, 1844: Jonas [Nutting] commences making the mortise for the Lords Stone on the Holy Hill of Peace. [There are several ways to “plant” a stone in the ground so it will stand straight. In the case of common slab-style grave stones, they are often left long enough to have nearly as much stone below the ground as above. In the case of gate posts they are often cut to leave a base on the stone much larger in mass than the post, thus securing it from movement. The option the Shakers seemed to use for their fountain stones was to set them in a bed-stone or socket stone. The socket stones at Enfield, New Hampshire, and Harvard, Massachusetts are still visible in their original locations. A mortise was cut into a heavy stone to receive the base of the fountain stone and the fountain stone was made tight with iron wedges between the sides of the mortise and the fountain stone – and/or molten lead is was poured into the void between mortise and fountain stone.]

July 12, 1844: John O[rsment] and James N[utting] finish the mortise in the bedstone at the Holy Hill of Peace.

July 13:, 1844: Bennet Bolton goes to Harvard after the Lords Stone which has been thee to be engraved. 

July 15, 1844: The Lords Stone is Erected this day on the Holy Hill of Peace – Elder Joseph Myrick comes to assist in the same – Lords Stone is erected by John Orsment Jr, Elder Br[other] Abr[aha]mWhitney, Elder Joseph Myrick, Elder Joseph Hammond, Samuel Barett & Jonas Nutting 

Elder Joseph Myrick, the Elder of the South Family at the Harvard Shaker Village, had previously lettered  the fountain stone erected at Harvard’s Holy Hill of Zion on November 23, 1843. In 1848, he visited the Canterbury Shakers where he both trained Elder Henry C. Blinn in the art of lettering stone and, while there, lettered some portion the Canterbury fountain stone. The surviving three-fifths of that stone is in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection.

The piece of worked marble is unlikely to have originated around Shirley, for as Meredith Marcinkewicz of the Shirley Historical Society commented, “We did not grow our own marble in Shirley.” Most of the fountain stones in the eastern Shaker communities seem to have a Berkshire County, Massachusetts, origin. The stones for Canterbury and Enfield, New Hampshire were purchased for them by the Lebanon Shakers and sent by rail on December 21, 1843. In May, 1843 the Enfield, Connecticut Shakers came to Lanesboro, Massachusetts to purchase a new fountain stone blank, their first stone having failed because it was too “flinty.” The Groveland, New York fountain stone was lettered at New Lebanon and taken there in the spring of 1843 and on December 12, 1845, the Lebanon Shakers procured two stones at Stockbridge, Massachusetts “to go by Rail R. to Harvard, to be lettered there [probably by Elder Joseph Myrick] – one is for Alfred, sacred ground, & the other I think for Harvard.” More likely the second stone was for Sabbathday Lake, Maine, since the Harvard fountain stone had been erected two years earlier. Although no record has been yet unearthed, it seems more likely than not that the Harvard and Shirley fountain stones were also procured at the Stockbridge marble quarries and sent to them by the Lebanon Shakers.

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Photograph of the Shirley Fountain Stone as It Stood on at the End of the Fountain, Shirley, Massachusetts, 1897. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1971.17123.1, (copy received from Fruitlands Museums, 1971).

When the stones were purchased they were probably quarried and sawn as rectangles. In preparation for lettering they were smoothed and polished on all sides and the top corners seem to have been rounded. The cutting of the rounded corners may have left some small pieces of marble that could have been worked into the truncated pyramid or the bottoms of the stones may have been cut to fit the socket stone with similar resulting “waste.” All of this is to suggest that it would be interesting to know whether it is possible to determine if the little piece of marble originated in the Stockbridge quarries.

We have shared what we know – probably infused with too much conjecture already – but we are stumped as to the why the piece was made, inscribed, and apparently taken from Shirley to Mount Lebanon (and then to Hancock) – where it either did or did not have some particular significance to the Shaker Eldress who gave it to the Museum.

As always – but with this more than ever – we welcome your thoughts. Please share them in the comments below.