“What shall we do with our bodies when we have done with our bodies?”

As the Shaker Museum collection staff continues producing digital records for an online catalog of its collection – a two and a half year project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation – they work methodically through groups of related artifacts. At present that group is a collection of hundreds of wooden foundry patterns acquired from Church Family workshops at Mount Lebanon. While the Shakers did not operate a foundry – the place where molten iron is cast into various forms – Shaker brothers did make wooden patterns for machinery, stoves, tools, and other objects needed in their communities. Many of these patterns can be given descriptive names – a gear, a bracket, a shaft, a clutch, a fly-wheel, a wheel hub, a stove door, a machine part, etc. — it is unusual to be able to associate a pattern with a known cast iron object in the collection. Recently, however, one pattern was identified as being part of a well-known artifact in the museum’s collection. The object is a 49-inch long, three-inch wide pattern for the stakes used to support cast iron grave markers at the Church Family cemetery at Mount Lebanon.

In 1886, North Family Elder Frederick W. Evans began his funeral sermon for Brother John Greaves with the question, “What shall we do with our bodies when we have done with our bodies?” Evans, like all Shakers, had “no belief in the future re-animation of the body, but of dust it was made, and to dust it is to return.” (1) Without any expectation that the body had any further use, the Shakers were nevertheless concerned that in its final disposal the body not be thoughtlessly treated. Elder Giles Avery, writing in an 1872 ministerial letter concerning graveyards and monuments, made the point that, “to inter the human corpse in the same manner as the dead body of a brute, that is, without any kind of monument to designate the place of its interment, or, even with a naked stone, without any lettering on it to record the name of the deceased buried beneath it, has a demoralizing tendency upon the living.” (2) The Shakers did bury their brothers and sisters in well-ordered simple graveyards. The marking of the location of the bodies varied over time. Historically, by Mosaic Law, bodies were deemed unclean and to be avoided and markers were placed on graves as a warning to passersby rather than as memorial monuments. The Shakers followed the common tradition and marked graves with stones, eventually adding the initials of the departed, and still later their names and their dates of death and/or ages. This evolution led to a number of Shaker graveyards that would be easily recognizable today. Over time, however, the cost of maintaining graveyards as the number of living Shakers to care for them decreased caused the Shakers to look for an alternative to allay this burden. Following consultation with other leaders, Elder Giles wrote the circular letter that provided guidelines for graveyards and monuments. He wrote, “[I]t is most in accordance with Christian propriety, … (whatever antecedents may have been to the contrary notwithstanding), to erect one small, modest, plain, stone or cast iron monument, which, if stone, may be sawed or hewn, but not polished, not exceeding 22 inches in height, above ground, and eighteen inches in width, at the head of each grave, having all graves in the yards now occupied, uniformly thus furnished. Upon this may be plainly lettered the name and age of the deceased, together with the date of demise.”  

Sketch of Proposed Cast Iron Grave Marker by Elder Henry C. Blinn

Sketch of Proposed Cast Iron Grave Marker by Elder Henry C. Blinn, in “Notes by the Way While on a Journey to the State of Kentucky in the Year 1873,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12791.1.

Acting on these guidelines, on January 25, 1873, Elder Amos Stewart from the Second Family at Mount Lebanon came to visit the Ministry and presented a cast iron grave monument that he developed as a sample. It was designed to have letters, cast in type metal, slid into a slot to spell the name of the departed. The Ministry judged it too frail to be serviceable. Although rejected, it set a direction toward using cast iron markers rather than those of stone. In mid-May the Ministry spoke with Elder Amos Stewart and Elder Thomas Damon from Hancock about a new design for cast iron monuments for graves. The new design had names cast into the iron rather than detached as in Elder Amos’s original design. This design relied on letters, cast in iron, obtained at eight cents apiece, that were glued to the wooden pattern to spell out the name of the departed. The same pattern was used with different letters attached to create unique markers. During these discussions, Elder Henry C. Blinn of the New Hampshire Ministry visited Mount Lebanon as he began a tour of the western Shaker communities. Elder Giles took him “to the mill to see a pattern for casting – which is intended to be placed at the head of the graves.” Elder Henry kept a travel diary and in his diary made a sketch of the pattern for markers that he saw. (4)

Cast Iron Letters

Cast Iron Letters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1970.16891.1-11.

On August 11, 1873, Brother George Wickersham “gets a sample cast iron monument for graves – the pattern of which he has made, by Ministrie’s request; it is about 17 in wide, and, perhaps 10 deep, in highest place, a stake 4 ft long 3 in wide designed for top of monument to stand up above ground 22 inches. It is agreed, in this society, to fit out all the graves after this pattern. It weighs about 10 lbs. & stake 12 lbs, whole cost about $1.75 cts pr monument.” On October 14th that year the Ministry recorded that, “The whole complement of Cast iron Grave monuments arrived from Albany to day, nearly 200 of them, cost about $1.50 each, at the furnace.” (3) It has not been established how the two hundred markers were distributed among the different Mount Lebanon families. It is known, by names on the markers in the Museum’s collection – seven bearing the names of Church Family Members and one from the Second Family – that they were used by those two Mount Lebanon Families. An inventory of all extant markers may determine where else they may have been used. The well-known cast iron “lollipop” markers used at Harvard follow the Ministry’s guidelines but are from a different casting pattern. The markers from Mount Lebanon, according to Elder Giles, were cast at Page’s in Albany. This foundry, started in Federal Stores (now Old Chatham, NY) in 1832 by Isaiah Page, moved to Chatham in 1835 and then Albany in 1850. Following examination of the sample marker from Brother George, the Ministry sent samples to New Hampshire and Kentucky and likely to all of the other Shaker Ministries. The only Shaker community known to have followed the example at Mount Lebanon was Harvard, Massachusetts. 

The casting pattern for the stake provides an empirical example of an important feature of the work of the Shaker woodworkers who made foundry patterns. When molten iron is poured into a mold and hardens and cools it shrinks – at about one-eighth of an inch per foot. A comparison between the wooden pattern and the finished stake demonstrates this feature of casting objects in iron. Brother George’s forty-nine and one-eighth inch long pattern produced a forty-eight and five-eighths inch iron stake. A special ruler – a shrink rule – is used by patternmakers to make sure that the finished object is of the correct dimensions. 

Foundry Pattern for Grave Marker Stake with Cast Iron Grave Marker

Foundry Pattern for Grave Marker Stake with Cast Iron Grave Marker, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2391.1.1 and 1950.2700.1.

At the end of the day, the cast iron markers presented the same problem as stone monuments – they deteriorated, were damaged by falling limbs and by vandals. Eventually, as the Mount Lebanon community began to close, the Shakers were again faced by the problem of how to maintain their graveyard monuments. Their solution this time was to erect a single large monument bearing the inscription, “Shakers,” possibly the most fitting way to remember the deceased members of a communal sect. 

Grave Marker Mounted on Stake

Grave Marker Mounted on Stake: Hannah Train, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2700.1.

Cast Iron Grave Markers in the Shake Museum | Mount Lebanon Collection 

(Information on additional cast iron markers from Mount Lebanon will be a most welcome addition to this list.)

  • Lucy Chapman (1779-1861) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.10.39) 
  • Eliza Johnson (1802-1870) [N. B.: Eliza Johnson was from Canterbury, NH, died on a visit to Mount Lebanon and was buried there.] (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2703.1) 
  • Samuel Johnson [Jr.] (1775-1856) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2701.1) 
  • Solomon King (1775-1858) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2702.1) 
  • Ellen Rayson (1840-1858) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2705.1) 
  • Hannah Train (1785-1964) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2700.1) 
  •  James P. Vail (1819-1865) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2706.1) 
  • Nathan Williams (1781-1869) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2704.1) 


  1. Evans, Frederick William, Shaker Sermon, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2002.20635.1. 
  2. Avery, Giles Bushnell, “Circular Concerning Graves, Graveyards, and Monuments,” Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1872, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9600.1
  3. Avery, Giles Bushnell, “Records Kept by Order of the Church, [Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], 1871-1905, 1916, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10343.1.
  4. Blinn, Henry Clay, “Notes by the Way While on a Journey to the State of Kentucky in the Year 1873,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12791.1 

The Shakers invite Abraham Lincoln to visit

The best known letter between President Abraham Lincoln and the Shakers is Lincoln’s August, 1864 note thanking the Shakers for a rocking chair they’d sent him. That letter is in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection and a draft of it is in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Most other correspondence between the Shakers and Lincoln concerned the Shakers’ desire for exemption from military service. There are, however, drafts of two letters in the museum’s collection that add insight into the Shakers’ opinion of and concern for the President as the Civil War came to an end.

Letter. Elder F. W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to Edwin M. Stanton and William H. Steward, March 19, 1865.

Letter. Elder F. W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to Edwin M. Stanton and William H. Steward, March 19, 1865, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.10195.1

These letters, written by Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates, are both dated March 19, 1865, barely a month before President Lincoln’s assassination. The first is addressed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of State William H. Steward, urging them to “send and entrust him [Lincoln] to us,” so the Shakers could “nurse him up with the ‘milk of human kindness’ administered by Common Sense.” It was meant to accompany the second letter, a direct invitation to the President to come to Mount Lebanon to recover his health after the stresses of the war. It reads:

Letter. Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to President Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1865.

Letter. Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to President Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1865, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.10196.1

We are impressed to invite you to our quiet home in Mount Lebanon, as a place of rest for body and mind. 

If you prefer, come incog. leaving the President in Washington, to be worshiped and worried by the ‘Sovereign People.’ 

We will meet and receive you as sympathizing friends; brothers and sisters in Christ, who regard you as a servant of God to humanity, on the outer wheel. 

We will ask for no favors, and you shall hear no complaints; nor any petitions, except to God for the restoration of your health and that you may be strengthened to accomplish your allotted task in the order of Divine Providence. 

It is not known if letters prepared from these drafts were ever sent and, if sent, were received; if received, answered. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon contributed copies of these letters to the Abraham Lincoln Papers with the hope they will be connected eventually with pieces of related correspondence as the project’s editors continue to work through Lincoln’s papers.


Mail bag

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

On October 1, 1861, a post office was established at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. Elder Richard Bushnell was appointed the first postmaster. The creation of this post office caused the Shakers to change their village name from New Lebanon to Mount Lebanon so as not to confuse their post office with the one in the town in which they lived. This office operated at the North Family until the fall of 1863, when the Elders there requested it be removed, saying, “they cannot abide it there any longer on account of advantages that young believers take of it, in their mail matters also, on account of the great gathering of company there on that account.” [1] Apparently the post office was too great a social draw and the Elders disapproved. As a result, the post office was moved to the less central Church Family Office where it was managed by one sister or another until it finally closed in 1930.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Prior to the establishment of their own post office, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon made use of the local post offices in New Lebanon and Lebanon Springs, collecting their mail and bringing it back to the village for distribution. The object at hand, a heavy leather cylindrical carrying case lined with brown linen, and just over twenty inches long and eight and a half inches in diameter, was used to retrieve the Shakers’ mail. Sisters at Canterbury, NH recollected that it had once belonged to Elder Frederick Evans at the North Family and was used by him for that purpose. This style of bag, sometimes called a portmanteau, was used by the Post Office Department in the mid-1800s to transport mail because it is nearly weatherproof. The large outside leather flap straps down over a small oval door that also can be tightly buckled. On the top front of the outer flap the words, “NEW. LEBANON. NY. FEBy. 1848.” are blind stamped in the leather.

The mail bag was purchased from the Canterbury Shakers by H. Phelps Clawson and donated to the Museum in 1953. Clawson was the Museum’s first curator and was responsible for the initial cataloguing of the Shaker collection assembled by museum founder John S. Williams, Sr.

[1] “A Register of Incidents and Events [Kept by the Ministry], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, 1849-1890, New York Public Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 4, p. 168.

A 1772 Bible passes through many hands


The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments … Edinburgh : Printed by Alexander Kincaid, 1772, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY, 1960.12747.1

There are a number of things that can rightly be associated with Elder Frederick William Evans in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection. We have presented two – a garden fork and a cane that were used by Elder Frederick. In the library there are numerous newspaper articles and pamphlets he wrote, manuscript journals and essays, a dozen or so photographs of the Elder, and of course, each and every building (with the exception of the 1829 Brethren’s Workshop) now standing at Mount Lebanon’s North Family was built after his Shaker life began there in 1830. If he was not the “architect” for the 1859 Great Stone Barn, it was, for certain, a manifestation of his concept of a modern large-scale dairy barn. Now, we present what we have always called “Elder Frederick’s Bible.”

The Bible, an unpaginated duodecimo volume, was printed by Alexander Kincaid – “His Majesty’s (i.e., King George III) Printer” – in Edinburgh in 1772. Clearly printed long before Elder Frederick’s birth on June 8, 1808, the Bible likely belonged to the Elder’s mother, Sarah Wight Evans. The book, although it appears to be in its original leather binding, has had its front paste-down and free end paper replaced. On the front past-down leaf is glued a scrap of paper bearing the inscription, “Sarah Wight, her book,  January 15th. 1782.” On the free end paper there is another scrap with the inscription – with a bit of guessing at deteriorated script – “1804 June 22d were Married George Evans to Sarah Wight – She Died alf past six O-clock mor [i.e., morning] June 13th, 1811. Her[?] Father Died July 29, 1814.” Another inscription on that same scrap of paper, in a different hand, reads, “Proctor Sampson From F. W. Evans 1831.” On the back paste-down cover is a listing of some of the children of George and Sarah Evans. The two most relevant inscriptions include, “Bromyard [Herefordshire ]1805 March 25 was born George Henry Evans Son of George and Sarah Evans at Eleven O’Clock at night. Godfather, Rob’t Cox and Samuel Fincher – God Mother Sarah Evans,” and Bromyard [Herefordshire ] 1808 June 9th was born Frederick William Evans quarter before one o’clock in the day. Godfathers Thos. Jones and James Barburton, God Mothers Mrs. Burnell and Miss Deacker.” The other two inscriptions are for Cecelia Coningsby Evans, Elder Frederick’s sister who died only months after Frederick was born and his younger brother Charles Evans who died in 1810. Both of these scraps appear to have been salvaged from the original end papers and remounted on the new ones. 

Although we call it “Elder Frederick’s Bible,” it appears that he possessed it for a shorter period than any of the other people with whom it is associated. When Elder Frederick’s mother died he was eventually taken to live with relatives at Chadwick Hall southeast of Birmingham, England. Just prior to his twelfth birthday he was retrieved by his father and his brother George Henry and brought to the United States. It seems doubtful that his father would have given him his mother’s Bible when he was eleven. In our last article we mentioned that Elder Frederick traveled back to England in 1887. He had also made a missionary trip there in 1871. He was an old hand at ocean crossings: in the spring of 1829, just prior to his coming to unite with the North Family, he had sailed to England and visited his family at Chadwick Hall. He returned to New York in January 1830. It is reasonable to think that either Frederick’s father gave him the Bible when he became an adult or that it had been left in England and his relatives gave it to him when he visited.

However he came to have his mother’s Bible, shortly after he became a Shaker he gave the Bible to Brother Proctor Sampson, a substantial force and eventually a family elder at the North Family. Brother Proctor was about sixty when he received the Bible and Frederick was a mere three years younger than Brother Proctor’s son Joseph, who had died at the age of twenty. Brother Proctor had come to the North Family in 1814, bringing his son Adam (renamed Joseph) and daughter Rachael with him. Joseph went to live at the Church Family, where he died in 1825. A year after receiving the Bible, Brother Proctor was appointed to stand with Elder Richard Bushnell in the Elders’ Order of the North Family. In 1847, seventy-five year old Proctor went to reside at the Church Family where he died in 1855. The Bible must have remained in that family. When the remnants of Mount Lebanon publications and written records were gathered together and transferred to the Canterbury Shakers, the Bible appears to have been among those materials. It was included (No. 255 in the Reference Section) by Elder Irving Greenwood and Sister Aida Elam in a Catalogue of Shaker Literature compiled in 1936. The Bible returned to New York when it was purchased in 1960 by John S. Williams, Sr., for the museum.

Hand me down my walking cane


Walking Cane, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 209.22.1, photograph by Matthew Kroening.

Elder Frederick William Evans (1808-1893) is always described as a physically strong and active man. Although best known as the voice of progressive Shakerism, he was well known in and out of his home at the North Family at Mount Lebanon, New York, as a farmer, gardener, and orchardist. When freed from his duties as Family Elder he was often found working in gardens and orchards. There is no evidence that his strength or stamina for physical work faltered as he grew older and, in fact, in 1886, in his late 70s, Evans undertook a missionary journey to England on behalf of his community. While there, he lectured in St. George’s Hall in London. A reporter from a newspaper covering the lecture described the Elder as “a tall man, dressed like a clergyman, [who] spoke with a slight American accent.” Evans’s height, thought to be six foot five inches, and noticeable in illustrations and photographs, plays a role in the description of his walking cane.


Walking Cane (detail of inscription), North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 209.22.1, photograph by Matthew Kroening.

The cane, fashioned from a red oak sapling with a natural crook, bearing the carved inscription “F. W. Evans. Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.,” was acquired by Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in 2009 from a Willis Henry Auction, Inc. auction. The cane is thirty-three inches long and has a replaced rubber tip fit over its end. The general rule-of-thumb is that a cane should be about one-half of the height of the person who uses it. With that in mind, Elder Frederick should be using a thirty-eight inch cane – and he probably did. The cane has been cut down in length, perhaps by someone who used it after Evans’s death.


Portrait of Elder Frederick W. Evans, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.12212.1, photographer, Edwin S. Sterry, Albany, NY. (The cane Evans is holding is not the cane described here.)


Ouch! Careful with that fork.


Garden Fork, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1870, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.3201.1. Photograph by Matthew Kroening.

In 1948, several months after the Shakers left their Mount Lebanon home and moved in with the Hancock Shakers but before they sold off their property, Phelps Clawson, the first curator of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon founder John S. Williams’s Shaker collection, found this garden fork in the foundation of a ruined building at the North Family. The building in which he found the fork was most likely, and appropriately, the Farmers’ Tool House that stood from 1860 to 1948 between the west end of the 1859 Great Stone Barn and the 1853 Wagon Shed (called the Garden House by the Shakers). The fork, with a small break in the handle just above the tines, may have been left behind as no longer useful. Break or no break, the fork does have the name “F.W. Evans” branded into its handle, making it a treasure to this institution.


Elder Frederick William Evans, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1878, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2013.23524.1. W. G. C. Kimball, photographer.

Frederick William Evans (1808-1893) was the North Family elder from 1858 until his death. He very well may have been the most widely know Shaker ever – mostly through his writings, public sermons and lectures, and as the head of the North Family. This family was the “gathering or novitiate” order at Mount Lebanon, the Shakers’ largest community. As the novitiate family, it was the primary conduit between the Shaker and non-Shaker world. Members of the press, photographers, foreign dignitaries, and the masses of curious travelers on the road would be directed to the North Family for information about Shaker life and belief. Evans would often be the person with whom they spoke. Elder Frederick was well known in his Shaker world as a farmer – journals often place him in gardens and orchards, experimenting with improvements to maximize yield and defend against natural threats to the family food supply. He was particularly interested in composting and natural fertilizers and the introduction of the use of ensilage to feed the family’s stock. It was probably Elder Frederick who designed the Great Stone Barn, and who controversially tried to turn the North Family into the kind of English gentleman’s farm on which he had spent his youth.

Elder Frederick’s garden fork was probably commercially made. Although its tines are evidently hand forged, the cast iron collar into which the tines are wedged suggests a mass produced tool. Clearly it is from the era when mass production and the evident hand of the craftsman were still enjoying a healthy relationship. The fork demanded careful use: the tines are sharp and made to pierce the soil. On April 23, 1884, the North Family journal records that “Frederick Evans run fork through his leg, on the Asparagrass [sic] bed.” The injury was probably not severe. There is no account of his being laid up in the sick room, or having to be doctored, or being kept from his work – but pierced he was. Without DNA evidence, we, of course can only reasonably assume that it was this same fork that turned on its user.

Another garden tool, a spade, bears the same brand, “F. W. Evans,” as the garden fork and shares some similarity in its manufacture. This spade was sold in 1982 by Willis Henry Auction, Inc. At that time it was offered by a seller who wished to remain anonymous, but now we know it to have been sold by James H. Bissland. Bissland had become particularly close to the Shakers at the North Family at Mount Lebanon and as recounted by his son, “About every time we visited the residents at Mount Lebanon … they did have something for us – oval boxes, baskets, chairs, garment hangers, kitchen utensils, farm tools, and hundred of the objects that Shakers had crafted and used.” Bissland had hoped to create a Shaker museum of his own but his untimely death in 1966 ended that dream. The spade was purchased by Howard and Flo Fertig for their Shaker collection.

As well known as Elder Frederick Evans was, this simple garden tool emphasizes that all Shakers, without consideration of their station in the Society, had a duty to work with their hands.