SHIRLEY — On a recent Sunday afternoon, the last of the fall tours organized by the Shirley Historical Society took place on the grounds of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution. The tour was not about the prison itself; rather, it was about the previous occupiers of the grounds — the Shakers.
As a group of history buffs and curiosity seekers listened intently, SHS Curator Meredith Marcinkewicz spun a fascinating tale of the history of the hallowed grounds on Harvard Road in Shirley.
“The First Parish Meetinghouse on Shirley Common was built in 1773,” she began. She went on to explain that, at that time, taxes supported both schools and churches, and the Meetinghouse was a traditional Old Puritan Congregational Church with long services and no heat. The preacher could go on at length, and the parishioners virtually held “captive.”
But in the late 1700s, across Europe and in the colonies of the New World, there emerged many radical religious groups who did not believe in the traditional forms of worship at the time. They formed Utopian societies of their own making.
Originally located in England in 1747, in the home of Mother Ann Lee, a group that came to be known as the “Shaking Quakers,” and later, simply “Shakers,” developed from the religious group called the Quakers, which originated in the 17th century. Both groups believed that everybody could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals, but the Shakers tended to be more emotional and demonstrative in their worship. Shakers also believed that their lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection and continuously confessing their sins and attempting a cessation of sinning.
Ann Lee had been forced into marriage by her father and had lost eight children at birth or before the age of 6. During the 1770s, she came over from England to what is today known as Colonie, New York, to avoid persecution.
Mother Ann Lee was a pacifist who insisted that her followers be kind to everyone, regardless of their social class, culture or color. This also meant that women and men were to be treated equally, a radical notion during a time in which women were the property of their husbands. Shakers did not reject marriage; they actually blessed marriage because they realized that without it the Shaker faith could not continue. They believed in continuing their way of life through a conversion process. But men and women were celibate, and so married couples were more like brother and sister.
Besides converts, Marcinkewicz explained that Shaker communities also acquired new parishioners via families who brought children that they could not afford to raise, or who had lost a mother. Once those children became adults, they could decide if they wanted to leave or stay in the community.
Many married women were relieved to join a community in which all work was shared. But once the industrial revolution expanded, women’s acceptance of remaining single and in the workforce gave them more options, and fewer and fewer joined and stayed with the Shakers.
At times, the method of worship of Mother Ann Lee involved ecstatic dancing or “shaking.” Attendees would try to shake out their evil habits and gather in love with symbolic gestures. In her worship services, everyone participated, not just the pastor. If your gift was raking, basketry, speaking in tongues, or dancing, that is how you could worship. For this kind or service, the Shakers needed a big empty floor so they could have enough space for full participation.
The Shirley Shaker Village is especially renowned because in 1783, a year before her death, Ann Lee visited the Wild brothers on their farm in the southern part of Shirley. Although many other seekers of spiritual truth came to hear her speak, her group was attacked by an angry mob and Elijah Wild had to hide her in a closet to escape harm.
It was on the evening of June 1, 1783 and on the following morning. Ann Lee and her elders James Whittaker and William Lee, had come over from the Square House in Harvard to hold a religious meeting with their friends in Shirley. As she testified against all sin “and every kind of impurity of flesh and spirit,” an irate crowd, mostly from the town of Harvard, surrounded Elijah Wild’s house.
Some of the mob were current and former members of the militia, and made up about 100 men. Ann Lee was skirted away into a dark closet concealed by the placement of a high chest of drawers in front of the door. A woman who begged to leave the area to attend to her still nursing infant was permitted to leave the scene and immediately contacted the proper authorities.
Still, by the next day, James Whittaker, who had returned to Harvard to attempt to make peace, as well as a sister attempting to protect her brother, had been badly whipped. True to their faith, the Shakers asked God to forgive their tormentors’ sins, and thereafter outsiders never again seriously oppressed the Shakers.
Many who came to hear Mother Ann Lee became believers in her mission, and the farms of four individuals, Shirley brothers Elijah and Ivory Wild, and Lancaster residents John Warren and Nathan Willard, joined their contiguous properties to form the territory of the Shirley Shakers. Although Ann Lee died at the age of 48 in 1784, by 1790 there were 60 men, women and children worshipping, working and living together on the property, which encompassed about 250 acres of land.
The community was divided into two families, the Church family and the North family. Elijah Wild was the chief elder of the Church family, and his brother Ivory that of the North family. Nathan Willard was appointed the first deacon or trustee.
People often attended their meetings from far away, including hobos who were desperate in the wintertime for a warm bed and meal. Many people came through; some of them stayed.
The violent twitching and swooning often accompanying the dances and marches of the Shakers’ meetings attracted a lot of negative attention from others in town. At times, parishioners would lie on the floor for hours, or even days. In 1782, the townspeople reacted by setting up a commission to approach the Shaking Quakers to discuss with them their conduct. By 1785, however, the town allowed for the abatement of the Shakers from paying the “minister rate” or taxes for their community, which became official for all perpetuity by 1789.
In 1792 the Shakers began construction of their own Meetinghouse, and in 1793 they signed a covenant as a United Society of True Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They proceeded to enlarge the farm and shops and build large dwellings for the other families who would join them in the community–the men living on one side, the women on the other.
By 1810, the Shakers were awarded a portion of the town’s school money for the purposes of educating its scholars.
Around 1850, at their height, the Shirley Community had a Church Family with Meetinghouse, large dwelling, brick office, brick wash house, brick trustees shop, several barns, and other wooden shops and dwellings. The North Family was the novitiate and had a three-story brick shop, small office, large dwelling, the broom shop and several barns and sheds. The South Family, over the line in Lancaster, had an office, dwelling, shop, and barn. This family also housed a home for the aged. According to the state census, there were 114 Shaker men, women and children in the Shirley Community at that time.
The Shirley Shakers were not known for their baskets, boxes or chairs, but for their brooms, mops and applesauce. They also sold tins of herbs such as thyme and sage. Their community was unique among the Shakers in that they built a large cotton factory on the banks of the Catacunemaug. When they realized that their work force was declining, however, they leased the factory to a company from New Bedford. Later the buildings were sold and a cordage factory made rope in them for over 100 years.
In 1908 the last three Shirley Shaker sisters sold the property to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who opened an Industrial School for Boys on the site.
The Shaker buildings were reused and Arthur Shurtleff (later Shurcliff) laid out the campus in a “Plan for the Arrangement of Buildings and Roads” in 1914. Shurcliff was a noted American landscape architect who studied engineering at MIT and landscape architecture at Harvard. His public works include Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, the grounds at Plymouth Rock, the Quabbin Reservoir and parts of the Charles River esplanade. The Shirley Historical Society is now trying to get the quadrangle that Shurcliff designed added to the National Register of Historic Places, an acknowledgement already bestowed upon much of the area in 1976.
In 1971 the complex was transferred to the Massachusetts Department of Correction and now is known as MCI-Shirley. There is now a minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security facility on the grounds of the Old Shaker Village. There are still seven Shirley Shaker buildings on their original foundations, and five that were moved.
In 2007, the Shirley Historical Society, with the help of then state Sen. Pam Resor and Rep.Jamie Eldridge, obtained a $500,000 grant to restore the Shaker buildings on the state prison property.
There are 12 Shaker buildings remaining, two of which are vacant but have potential if more money becomes available. With funds from the grant, those two buildings were stabilized, and four buildings were repaired and partially restored.
Three 19th century Shaker buildings that had been vacated had major work done and are now able to be used for DOC offices.
Unfortunately, there were two buildings that had more damage than the SHS could afford to do anything about, and “they will probably fall apart,” says Marcinkewicz.
The prison limits visits to the site, but they are possible through special arrangement with the Shirley Historical Society. For more information on the history of the Shakers, search under Google books on the Internet for The History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts, by Seth Chandler, visit http://www.shirleyhistory.org, or visit the Shirley Historical Society itself, located at 182 Center Road. The society is open most Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Their telephone number is 978-425-9328.