NEW LEBANON There are no bells or whistles at the Shaker Museum at Mount Lebanon, nothing to attract visitors to the place other than its peaceful setting, some interesting architecture and a wonderful sense of history.
Nestled in a rural section of eastern Columbia County where the Hudson Valley begins mingling with the Berkshires, the Shaker Museum begins its 2014 season this weekend, offering free tours to the public between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every Friday through Monday.
The grounds, which once included 6,000 acres and 100 buildings, are open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., through Oct. 13. Now reduced to 10 buildings on 30 acres just off of Route 20 in the town of New Lebanon, the Mount Lebanon site, the largest Shaker settlement in the world in the 19th century, is just a mile from the Massachusetts border.
"We have quite a lot going on this season ," said Shaker Museum and Library President David Stocks. "We've recently purchased 61 acres of land next to our historic site, which will keep it open space, so we're excited about that, and we're also involved in two big Shaker exhibits this summer. We've designed a strategy working with other organizations to make sure that this site and all the items in our collection are seen and appreciated by the public."
It was back in 2007 that Stocks became director of the Shaker Museum and Library, then located in Old Chatham.
Things were moved to the current site, also referred to as the North Family site, in 2010, and while the goal isn't to become the tourist destination that nearby Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass., is, Stocks is trying to raise awareness.
"We're continuing to grow, year by year, and we had about 1,000 visitors last year which is kind of small," he said.
"We don't have restrooms, it isn't handicap accessible, and we're always skirting restoration work in progress while we take people on a tour. But we are increasing our numbers. This area, between Albany to Hancock with us in between, really was the birthplace of the American miracle of the Shakers. We're trying to plant the seed in people's minds that this really is Shaker country."
The Shakers were founded in 1777 by Ann Lee, who emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1774. She created what is now the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District in the town of Colonie, and that site is run by the Shaker Heritage Society.
It was James Whitaker who formed the Mount Lebanon group in the following decade, and that site was at its peak around the time of the Civil War.
Shakers spread to other parts of the country, including Kentucky, New Hampshire and Sabbathday, Maine, the only surviving site with actual practicing Shakers -- just three of them. The Hancock site had Shakers living there until 1960, the Mount Lebanon site till 1947, and the Watervliet site till 1925.
The two Shaker exhibits that Stocks is looking forward to are "Utopian Benches," which will be on display at the 1854 Wash House at the Mount Lebanon site beginning June 20, and "The Shakers: From Mount Lebanon to the World," which will be hosted by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
"Utopian Benches" was created by artist Francis Cape, who will make an appearance at a fund-raiser at the site on Saturday, June 21. The Farnsworth exhibit will include a number of items from the collection of the Shaker Museum and Library.
Also, in November of this fall, "Shakers: America's Quiet Revolutionaries," will be on display at the New York State Museum in Albany.
"It's going to be quite a collaboration," said Stocks. "All three Shaker sites in our area working with the state museum , library and archives are putting this together so we're very excited about it."
The largest artifact on the grounds in Mount Lebanon is the Great Stone Barn. When it was constructed in 1859 it was the largest stone barn in the Western Hemisphere and had railroad tracks running inside the building.
The Great Stone Barn is 50 feet wide, four stories high and nearly 200 feet long. In 1972 the barn was gutted by fire, leaving only its four massive masonry walls.
"We are very busy on the barn, trying to stabilize it, and we have been fundraising for it the last six years," said Stocks. "Last summer the work started, but it's a million dollar project. The goal is to make those stone ruins safe so that visitors can safely get inside the place and walk around."
The Shaker Museum and Library has three full-time employees. Joining Stocks on the staff are Jerry Grant, director of research and library services, and administrative assistant Wyatt Erchak.
"We also have three college interns working with us this summer, two as tour guides and one is an art intern. We're looking forward to a great summer, and we feel great that we are really moving in the right direction," Stocks said.