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Follow this link & click Start to see: Natalie Merchant explores Shaker history

A Short History of Watervliet

The late 18th century was a time of tremendous change.  The transition from farms to factories, war, widespread religious persecution and development of the New World fed an explosion of experimental expressions of spirituality and social order.  The Shaker movement arose out of this climate.  Living and working in the increasingly industrial city of Manchester, England was a group of individuals who had fallen out of the Quaker faith.  Led by James and Jane Wardley, the group discussed the merits of celibacy, communal ownership of property and the notion that God could be both male and female in nature.  One member of this fledgling group was a young, illiterate woman named Ann Standerdin.

Standerdin was the daughter of a blacksmith and worked in the Manchester textile industry.  According to oral tradition, Ann was prone to visions and spiritual revelations in her youth.  She was interested in celibacy from a young age but entered into a marriage of convenience at her father’s behest.  Ann and her husband bore four children.  All four died before Ann joined the Wardley Society.  Ann quickly became a leader among the Society.  Local arrest records document a number of occasions when Ann Standerdin was arrested for disrupting Anglican Church services and for preaching on the streets.  She suffered public beatings and abuse by her own family members.  Tradition states that while Ann was in jail, she had a vision encouraging her to travel to the new world to establish a new religious society.  Ann Standerdin, along with her husband, niece, brother and a handful of others made the long and hazardous journey to New York, arriving in August of 1774.  Ann’s husband left her after arriving in New York and she began using an altered variation of her maiden name, Lees.

By 1776, Ann Lee and her followers leased a 700 acre parcel of land in the Van Rensselaer Manor west of Albany.  That year the Shakers moved to the property and began the difficult task of turning swamp land and sandy dunes into productive property.  Ann’s brother, William, worked as a blacksmith while other members of the religious group found work as weavers and shoemakers in Albany.  From the beginning, the group lived communally in a log cabin and focused efforts on creating a successful farm.  Albany natives were suspicious of the activities of this strange group of people, derisively referred to as “Shaking Quakers” or simply “Shakers.”  However, a group of New Light Baptists in New Lebanon, New York became increasingly involved in Ann Lee’s vision to create a utopian communal religious society.

While driving sheep from New Lebanon to the Albany Shakers, a Shaker brother was jailed on suspicion of supporting the enemy British troops.  The local people were perplexed and frightened by the group of British immigrants who lived under the leadership of a woman.  Ann Lee was thought to be a witch or a British spy.  She soon found herself in jail for attempting to dissuade others from taking up arms in defense of liberty.  Lee’s followers began a tradition of successfully petitioning the State to support their cause and Governor George Clinton released her from jail.  Soon afterward, Lee embarked on a missionary journey throughout the Northeast.  Areas where she found sympathetic believers often became the site of a new Shaker community, but the journey was long and harsh.  Travel and frequent beatings took a toll on Lee and her brother, William, both of whom died at the Watervliet site in 1784.

After Lee’s death, a former Baptist minister named Joseph Meecham established the complex system of Shaker communities comprised of economically separate family groupings led by pairs of male and female leaders who reported to a central ministry based at Mt. Lebanon and Watervliet.  The effect was a new and controversial concept of “family.”  Known initially as Niskayuna Shakers, the community gradually established four families including the Church Family, where the most experienced and devout Shakers lived, the North family, which manufactured goods for sale on the Erie Canal, the West Family, which grew a wide variety of vegetable crops, and the South Family gathering order where children and new converts lived.  At its peak in the 1850s, there were approximately 230 shakers at the Watervliet site and 6,000 Shakers nationwide.

Eventually, the legal boundaries of the Town of Niskayuna changed and the site of this first Shaker community became known as Watervliet.  Today, the property is located within the Town of Colonie.  This was the site where the Shakers first developed their famous garden seed industry.  Quality control, standardization of seed size and the innovative packaging of seeds (still used today) quickly led to a widely known reputation for excellence in farming operations.  The Shaker flat broom, several modified agricultural tools and vacuum sealed tin cans were all invented at the Watervliet site.  Shakers regarded their daily tasks as an offering to God.  Cleanliness, honesty, tolerance and hard work were an important aspect of their culture dating back to Ann Lee.  This, in combination with a communal living arrangement, provided ample opportunity for honing their many technological innovations and efficient patterns of daily living.

The Watervliet Shakers quickly became a source of inspiration for people in the outside world.  Many curious visitors came to see for themselves why the Shakers were so successful.  Religious leaders from Robert Owen to John Humphrey Noyes visited the Watervliet Shakers. Governors, Senators, celebrities and military leaders also satiated their curiosity by attending worship services.  A period of intense spiritual revival started at the Watervliet South Family in 1826 and spread to all of the other Shaker communities.  The famous Shaker “gift” or “spirit” drawings were created during this period.  Each community also designated special spiritual “fountains” or sacred sites.  The Watervliet community identified more sacred sites than any other community.  By the mid-1800s the Shakers were internationally known for their neat, efficient communities and their unusual religious beliefs.  The increasing numbers of non-Shakers wishing to see Shaker religious services led to the need for a new Meeting House.  The new 1848 Shaker Meeting House exemplifies the interaction between the Shakers and the outside world.  Worldly people entered the building at the South gable end to access rising seats built into the structure of the building specifically for spectators.  Beyond the rising seats, a large, open dance floor provided sufficient space for the members of the Shaker community to engage in spiritual song and dance.  More than a few of the spectators eventually joined the Shakers but many more saw the Shakers as a must see curiosity.

Non-Shaker residents continued to be perplexed by the Shakers.  Some saw them as a threat to the “natural” family order.  Shakers openly treated black people as equals in their communities.  There is strong evidence that the Watervliet Shakers also sheltered fugitive slaves and helped them flee to Canada.  This, along with the equal authority of women in their communities, was not kindly regarded by many of their neighbors.  The high profile case of Eunice Chapman also tarnished their image.  As a woman, Chapman was left in a position of legal limbo after her husband joined the Watervliet Shakers as she was unable to obtain a divorce or to support herself financially.  Ultimately, New York State divorce laws were changed due to the Chapman case.   As a result, the Watervliet community suffered frequent attacks by arsonists and their neighbors were known to fire guns and create disturbances at the gates to the community.  Mobs occasionally invaded the community in order to forcibly remove neighbors, children and other relatives who had converted to the faith.

Despite these difficulties, the Watervliet community thrived throughout the 19th century. The Watervliet Shakers shipped a wide variety of goods to the mid-west via the Erie Canal and engaged in hundreds of business enterprises.  As government run orphanages became established and work opportunities increased, fewer people were drawn to the Shakers.  A general decrease of interest in religion and spirituality also limited the numbers of new converts.  By the early 20th century, the Watervliet community experienced difficulty maintaining all of its properties and buildings within each family grouping.  Arson led to the destruction of the North Family buildings and Albany County purchased the Church Family property for use as a nursing home and a sanatorium and preventorium for tuberculosis patents.  The Town of Colonie and Albany County used a portion of the Church family agricultural fields to create the first municipal airport in the nation.  Albany County continues to own the site of the Church family.  Nine Shaker buildings and the ruins of a Shaker grist mill remain on site and provide excellent examples of Shaker architectural forms.  The 1848 Meeting house is particularly significant since few examples of this type of architecture exist and no other large scale Shaker Meeting House retains original interior features.

The importance of the Watervliet site can not be overstated.  It influenced American history in the areas of religious development, the history of technology and agriculture, women’s role in society, decorative arts and design, African American history and legal history.  Today, the site retains much of its rural character and historic landscape despite heavy development in the surrounding area.  The area of historic significance includes the Ann Lee Pond Nature Preserve and bike paths that connect to trails along the Mohawk River.  Located adjacent to Albany International Airport and several major transportation corridors, the site is an important and unique gateway to the Capital District and the Adirondack region.  Shaker Heritage Society is currently working in partnership with Albany County, the Albany County Airport Authority and the Town of Colonie to develop a mixed use cultural park at the site that will provide cultural, recreational and educational program opportunities while stimulating tourism and economic development within the region.

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