Popcorn ball press

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Fig 1: Popcorn Ball Press and Accessories, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6589.1 (press) and 1953.6590.1-.3 (cylinders)

Shaping popcorn into balls when it is covered in hot sugar syrup or molasses is hard on the hands, especially in quantity. This popcorn ball press relieved that discomfort and made consistently sized balls.

Using the press was pretty simple – the metal cylinders were filled with sticky popcorn and then placed on the base of the press. The arm was pushed down until the two recesses met, trapping a perfectly round ball between them. The finished popcorn balls were then either served or wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper to be eaten or sold later. Though there’s no documentation of the Shakers selling popcorn balls, the three accompanying metal cylinders suggest a vigorous production.

The Museum’s 1953 accession records for the popcorn ball press provide two significant pieces of information: That the press was made by Canterbury Brother Alexander Cochran (sometimes Cochrane), and that it was used for making “molasses popcorn balls.” Brother Alexander Y. Cochran was born May 14, 1848. Much of Brother Alexander’s life story eludes us, but we know he was the natural brother of Eldress Dorothea T. Cochran at Canterbury. Eldress Dorothea was born in 1844 in Duntalker, Scotland. While the 1860 census gives Alexander’s birthplace as Massachusetts, it is likely his parents came to this country between 1844 and 1848. Brother Alexander was second elder in the Canterbury Church Family and worked closely with Ministry Elder Henry Blinn on managing correspondence and financial matters pertaining to the publication of the Manifesto up until May, 1890, when he decided to leave the Shakers. Little more is known about his post-Shaker life, except that an Alexander Y. Cochrane of Waverly, Massachusetts, was granted patent 584,922 on July 22, 1897 for an improvement in a “yielding wire seat frame” and that he was, in 1920, married to Louise F. Cochrane. Among Eldress Dorothy’s vital statistics it is recorded that she had a brother living in Waverly, Massachusetts, so it’s likely this is the same Alexander Cochran. We don’t know whether the popcorn ball press was a harbinger of Brother Alexander’s inventive nature, but his departure from the Shakers in 1890 does provide a date before which the press was made and used.

There are two scenarios for the Canterbury Shakers popcorn ball adventures  – one, that they made traditional blackstrap molasses popcorn balls and the second, that molasses, in this case, refers to maple molasses. Any readers with special knowledge of the history of popcorn balls in New England are encouraged to weigh in.

Maple Molasses: About two miles from the Shaker Village at Canterbury, the Shakers had an 800-tree sugar bush that they tapped for over a half a century. The trees produced over 50 barrels of sap per day during sugaring season and the sugar house workers could turn that into 50 gallons of syrup or 350 pounds of maple sugar. The Canterbury sisters made a variety of maple candies to sell from the sugar and it is reasonable to think that maple molasses popcorn balls may have been among their offerings for sale. A simple recipe for maple molasses popcorn balls can be found at here.

Blackstrap Molasses: In the 1880s the cane sugar and molasses jockeyed for position as the more expensive sweetener. Cane sugar had historically been the more expensive of the two, but as improvements in processing sugar cane were made it eventually became quite inexpensive and a premium emerged for those who preferred the taste of blackstrap molasses. If you have not tasted molasses popcorn, think Cracker Jacks, America’s first “The More You Eat the More You Want” junk food. Its flavor is an acquired taste (and today’s corn syrup Cracker Jacks do not do the original justice), but apparently once a devotee, it was greatly preferred by some in some foods – popcorn balls being one of them. There are a number of recipes available for making molasses popcorn balls. One five-star recipe for “bare-bones popcorn balls” that uses just popped corn, molasses, and refined sugar can be found here. The final step in this recipe is to “eat whatever sticks to your fingers.”  Bon appetit!

 

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Molasses Popcorn Balls from Tori Avey: Tori’s Kitchen website.

 

“[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.

A four ton trip hammer

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Forge, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2016, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph.

In the winter of 1846 the First and Second Order of the Church Family determined to build a new blacksmith shop, one of stone with waterpower that would operate a lathe, drilling works, a grindstone, bellows for the forge, and a trip hammer. The shop was to be built 34 feet by 44 feet and located in the corner of the Deming Lot at the northeast corner of the land bordered by the main road that ran through the village (now called Darrow Road) and the road that runs downhill to the Shaker gristmill (now called Ann Lee Lane on the east end and Cherry Lane on the west end). The shop still stands and is now a private residence. The 1845 Shakers’ census notes that there were three blacksmiths in what is now called the Center Family – Brothers Arba Noyes, James Vail, and George Long.

Construction was largely done by members of the Second Order with considerable help from hired Irish laborers who did much of the digging for the pit for the waterwheel and laid up most of the stonework. By mid-summer the wheel pit, the drain to carry away water from the wheel, and the masonry work were completed. In the early fall, the hired labor returned to build the dam to create the pond to supply water to power the shop. The dam is still standing and pond is on the east side of the road.

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Interior of the Church Family Forge with the Trip Hammer in its Original Location, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. John S. Williams, Sr., photographer.

The decision to include a trip hammer in their new blacksmith’s shop was bold, but one that greatly increased the Shakers’ ability to fabricate and manufacture items out of iron. Trip hammers of many designs have been used for a couple of thousand years. The basic principle is that some kind of power is applied, in some manner, to raise a hammer larger than can be lifted by a man so that when it is dropped it will come down with more force than a man can exert alone. Trip hammers, in addition to forging iron, have been used for hulling and grinding grain, pounding rags for papermaking, and crushing iron ore to make it easier to extract the metal from the rock. In blacksmithing, trip hammers are often used to draw out flat sheets of metal from an iron bar and to shape a piece of square iron rod, for instance flattening the end of an iron bar to make a shovel and or making round ends on a square bar to make an axel for a wagon.

The Shakers documented their new trip hammer in their journals. In January 1846, Center Family Elder Amos Stewart experimented with a model for a windmill, hoping that he could use wind power “to tilt a triphammer.” This attempt, although it would have saved building a dam for the shop, apparently failed. The next month, Brother Hiram Rude, the family mechanic, went to Lee, Massachusetts to see a “gang of Triphammers.” The Shakers frequently went to visit businesses and factories to stay abreast of new technologies. Apparently in the next few weeks a design for the hammer was drawn up and casting patterns made for the metal parts. Elder Amos and Brother Peter went to Albany to see about castings for the gearing for the hammer. It was nine months later – after the new shop was finished and its forge fired up – that Elder Amos and Brother Braman Wicks, a carpenter from the Church Family, began working again on the gearing to drive the hammer. In July, a tree was cut for the frame to hold the hammer. Apparently by winter that year the Shakers were rethinking the design of the trip hammer. Elder Amos and Brother Hiram went to Cohose, New York, to look at another trip hammer and two days after that trip they had settled “upon the form for a Hammer & spoke for castings in Troy.” This final design was completed and the trip hammer seemed to be in use shortly after that.

While trip hammers were associated primarily with iron work, the Shakers appeared to have another idea for using it quite early on – maybe even before they began planning to built it: pounding black ash logs to break down the bond between the tree’s natural growth rings. When the growth rings are separated, they are easily peeled off in long strips and become the treasured materials from which baskets are woven. Most basket makers would do this work by pounding a log with a sledge hammer. For the Shakers, the ability to more efficiently produce basket weaving material meant that they could greatly increase their production of all kinds of baskets. In November of 1847, Elder Daniel Boler of the Church Family worked “at the blacksmith shop preparing trip hammer for pounding out basket stuff.” The Shakers were so dependent on having basket materials prepared by machine that in  1863, when apparently their own trip hammer was not available, they took ash logs to Bromley King’s forging shop in Waterford, New York, to get them pounded.

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Trip Hammer on xhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca.1985, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Paul Rocheleau, photographer.

This trip hammer is among the largest and heaviest non-architectural objects made by the Shakers. It is over fifteen feet long, six and a half feet high, just over four feet wide, and is thought to weigh around four tons. The machine has two hammers – a large one at one end and a small one at the other end. It was powered by a waterwheel connected by a belt to the wooden drive pulley. Once the hammer got up to speed and the massive cast iron flywheel was rotating to preserve its inertia, one or both hammers could be engaged.

Watch a trip hammer demonstration from Thomas Ironworks, Seville, Ohio 

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Interior of the Blacksmith’s Shop Exhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca. 1955, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. C. E. Simmons, photographer.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s acquisition of the trip hammer has some tales and legends associated with it. In the 1940s John S. Williams, Sr., the museum’s founder, heard that the Shakers were breaking up the equipment in the blacksmith’s shop in preparation for selling the building. He appealed to have the work stopped until he could move the hammer and the forge and bellows to the museum. It was war-time in America and the scarcity of trucks made it difficult to find someone who could move such a heavy piece of equipment. Fortunately, Williams’s good friend Albert Callan, the owner of the Chatham Courier newspaper, had a new printing press being delivered around this time and once the delivery of the press was complete the truck headed to Mount Lebanon to move the trip hammer. Once loaded, they then had to find a route back to the Museum that did not involve crossing a bridge that could not bear the weight of the truck and hammer. Somehow it all worked out and the trip hammer has been at the Shaker Museum ever since.

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.