Enfield Shaker Historic District
The Enfield Shaker Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright ©2011, The Gombach Group.
The Enfield Shaker Historic District lies on the west bank of Lake Mascoma along New Hampshire Route 4A. As a Shaker community from 1793 to 1923, it consisted at various times of more than fifty buildings stretched in three contiguous groupings or "families" along four miles of the state highway. As the community changed over the years, the buildings were often moved, combined, altered, or demolished, and when the site was sold to its previous owners, the Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette, in 1928 its two remaining families consisted of 42 structures on approximately 1,200 acres. At present the land is used in much the same way as it has traditionally been used and thus remains basically unaltered. Fifteen Shaker buildings survive, interspersed with fifteen twentieth century LaSalette structures.
The Shaker buildings listed in the Enfield Shaker Historic District are architecturally or historically significant for their representative features and for a preponderance and sophistication of stone masonry not associated with that geographical area in the nineteenth century.
The approximate northern boundary of the Enfield Shaker Historic District is indicated by "Shaker Bridge," a steel frame structure built on the remains of a wooden causeway and bridge which had been built by the Enfield Shakers in 1849. Shaker Bridge connects the village of Enfield with the state highway 4A.
Route 4A functions as the major north-south axis of the Enfield Shaker Historic District, providing visual access to the community. Approaching from the north, the highway runs between the lake shore and Shaker Mountain, which rises immediately to the west. This wooded lakeside gives way to a broad alluvial plain, and its cleared land is the North Family, a complex of five Shaker structures and two LaSalette structures clustered at the road. Although the designation has had no literal currency for half a century, the two remaining groupings of buildings retain the traditional names of "North Family" and "Church Family."
The land upon which the community now stands was the site of a few poor farms and much unimproved acreage when the local Shakers, who had been living in loose coalition in the vicinity moved to the western shore of Mascoma Lake in 1793. There they farmed, manufactured, and prospered until their declining numbers compelled them to abandon the place in 1923, and to sell it in 1928. Their material and spiritual culture remains there, as testimony to their singular and remarkable existence in that place.
The first job of the Shakers was to prepare the site for the eventual purposes which evolved — agriculture, industry, residence, and worship. Orderly rows of buildings were laid out in limited, self-sustaining villages. The rich alluvial soil was cleared, and where the mountain streams had cut ravines on their way to the lake, they were filled with rubble and brush. Miles of drainage ditches were cut throughout the property, filled with, field stone, and sodded over. The streams were re-channeled to run in areas most compatible with the villages' needs for residential and industrial water. High grounds were planted with apple and maple orchards, and level grounds with, vegetable and seed gardens. Less accessible fields were used for hay cultivation and pasture. The entire site was developed in time as one large and virtually self-contained community, and it was able to sustain itself as such, long past the years in which similar lands in the area, without the benefit of such successful planning, were being modified for other uses. One measure of its success as a model of community planning is the fact that after fifty years of ownership, its current inhabitants work and live there in a manner essentially unchanged from that which they inherited from the Shakers. They have continued to use the same layout of fields for their crops, have altered the water system scarcely at all, and find the order in the village which was laid out in the 18th century a comfortable and practical place in which to live.
The rich soil along the western edge of the lake provided the Shakers with excellent vegetables, and in time they became famous for their vegetable seed stock and began to peddle it commercially — being among the first of the Shaker communities to introduce that novel practice in the 19th century. The medicinal herb industry flourished here also, and with the seed industry was able to compete with large firms well into the 20th century with such medicinal preparations as Fluid Extract of Valerian. The herbs grown here were primarily medicinal and were pressed into bricks and retailed locally as well as being wholesaled in the city.
Also produced for sale was the wool from Merino sheep — the Enfield Shakers being among the first to import that breed into this country — and in large quantities, applesauce and cider, maple sugar and syrup, and preserves. They were famous for their successes in producing onion sets and the current owners report that they continue to use with remarkable results — the Shaker onion fields. The Shakers in general were noted for their early and enlightened treatment of their animal stock, and 19th century accounts often remark on the progressive attitudes of the farmers at Enfield.
The other use of the land, and one which was inevitably connected to the Shakers' successes in agriculture, was its varied industry. The community produced and sold goods which it could create at home — spinning wheels, whips, brooms, coopered ware, textiles and manufactured clothing, furniture, etc. — and which were sold at the offices of the various villages or by its agents on sales trips in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Canada. Manufacturing became increasingly important in later years when farming declined, and the Shakers contrived to become a manufacturing center by using the village across the lake and keeping the home community tranquil and isolated.
In 1831 the Society acquired water rights to the Mascoma River at its fall of water into the eastern shore of the lake and proceeded to establish there a series of mills. The town of Enfield grew up around those industries, and when the railroad came north to link Concord and White River Junction the Shakers were successful in having the line pass not through their village on the western shore, but through their manufacturing center on the other side of the lake. They then built a causeway and bridge across the lake to connect the two and so had use of the activity without the annoyance of it. The presence of the railroad meant an infinitely greater market for their commercial goods, of which they took full advantage. They also took the opportunity to sell ice to the railroad for its dining cars and supplied it timber from the Shaker sawmills for its railroad trestles. The impetus of this commercial activity begun at that time continued into the 1960's when the last of the mills failed and the railroad stopped running.
The Shakers are renown for their ability to invent solutions to the novel situations which they created and the list of Shaker inventions is long. Of particular interest at Enfield is the attribution of the invention of the circular saw. Although used in England in the 18th century, and generally considered to have been independently discovered some years later at the Harvard, Massachusetts, Shaker community, the Enfield Shakers consistently maintained that about 1803 they contrived a spoked wheel used for cutting slabwood. This saw was hung in the mill after it was worn out and was displayed for visitors into the 20th century.
When the villages were laid out at the community, the various streams which wound down the side of Shaker Mountain were channelled into one central source which would supply the community. A network of aqueducts and reservoirs was created which finally pooled all available mountainside water in a reservoir which could supply water through a system of wooden pipes to the buildings and to a number of hydrants set about them. The Shaker buildings were thoroughly equipped with running water, in some cases on the upper stories. Also notable here is the site of the 1842 Feast Ground, a broad plain created for worship on Shaker Mountain.
The various Shaker buildings which remain at the Enfield community range from insignificant to monumental. The smaller barns and sheds vary little from their local non-Shaker equivalents, and the larger frame buildings, while retaining their Shaker construction, are not remarkable among Shaker buildings. There was, however, in the 1830's and 40's, an interest at Enfield in building with granite, and the stonework which survives is of a quality and quantity not generally associated with the local area nor with Shaker architecture in general. The North Family's Laundry and Dairy is traditionally considered the first stone building to be constructed in the area, and after the South Family's 1836 Office followed it five years later (the building, no longer standing, is not within the District), the 1837 Great Stone Dwelling House was started. It may well be that this structure was designed by Ammi Burnham Young. The fine stonework was built during the summer of 1837 by the Boston stonemason Luther Kingsley, and the house finished by Shaker cabinetmakers. It was probably the largest stone building north of Boston in its time. Other sophisticated examples of masonry construction followed — notably the architectural detailing of the 1849 Machine Shop and the ground floor of the 1854 Cow Barn, and at the North Family, the granite and brick 1853 Office. The community was also famous for its miles of field stone fences, its broad granite walks and its cut granite fence posts, all of which now lie buried on the premises.
The traces of Shaker life remain in abundance in both above-ground and below-ground sites. Original Shaker stonework is buried in place. The remains of its industry is continually being turned up; students at the LaSalette Seminary recovered dozens of bottles used in the medicinal herb industry and buried in a dump at the turn of the last century. Mill sites dot the streams, and the traces of the early system of aqueducts are also present there.
Religion; Social Humanitarianism
The greatest significance of the Shaker community at Enfield was in its spiritual and social establishment. The social principles which guided it made possible the enormous material output associated with it, but beyond that, it served the community as an important resource. Its three families were for many years the three largest taxpayers in the community; its policy of absorbing the community's orphans made the Society the area's orphanage. No major religious policy was formulated at Enfield; other Shaker communities were better known for that. The people who lived there formed a conscientious and dependable community dedicated to a better way of life, and their influence in the area, through their mutual aid with the townspeople or the excellence of their schooling for the children of the town, left the legacy for which they were best remembered by the people of Enfield.
Loss of membership and economic problems in the last half of the nineteenth century eventually forced the Shakers to sell their property. With encouragement and a lowered price offered by the Shakers, a group of LaSalettes from Hartford, Connecticut, purchased the property and relocated in Enfield. The Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette was founded in 1846 as a religious order dedicated to the reconciliation of man to his God. Their arrival was filled with a spirit of optimism and intensity of conviction that paralleled the Shakers at their crest.
In 1928, the first group of priests and four sisters of St. Martha arrived in Enfield. Later that year, the LaSalette Seminary commenced with an enrollment of 36 students. 1931 marked the beginning of a large influx of talented brothers who worked as farmers, mechanics, craftsmen, teachers, artists and administrators and formed a source of vitality in the LaSalette Seminary. In 1951, the LaSalette Shrine opened, attracting many visitors from the outside world. Individuals, families and pilgrim groups still continue to visit the LaSalette Shrine for masses and special services.
Today, a reduced number of priests and brothers remain. The Seminary closed in 1974 and since that time, the Shaker community has been primarily used as a conference center, family vacation and retreat. The LaSalettes have created over twelve miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, a campground, beach front, ball fields and hockey rink. Each summer 12-20 young people spend all or part of their summer in Enfield as members.
The LaSalettes maintain 35-50 acres of vegetable gardens and an even greater amount for hay and corn fields. The produce is canned in their sophisticated cannery, or sold at the produce stand or local market. The LaSalettes also maintain a maple sugarbush of more than 3,000 taps that produces syrup for the community as well as outside sales.
The LaSalettes encourage visitors and provide interpretations and a small Shaker museum in the Shaker Visitor Center, located in the Ministry Shop,
The land which was once the center of the Shaker Community at Enfield, New Hampshire, remains much the same. Throughout the course of the last 185 years, there has been a continuous emphasis on labor intensive activities and spirituality. As an active and modern community, it has witnessed subsequent transformation of the landscape and environment. The past fifty-year tenure of the LaSalettes mark a natural evolution from the past, not a freezing of it. The LaSalette community continues the tradition of the Shakers of self-sufficiency, self-containment and spiritual orientation.
Elkins, Hervey. Fifteen Years in the Senior Order of the Shakers, (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth Press, 1853).
Melcher, Marguerite Fellows, The Shaker Adventure. (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1941).
† Robert P. Emlen, Department of American Decorative Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Enfield Shaker Historic District, grafton County, New Hampshire, nomination document, 1977, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.