Thursday, August 12, 2004

Fruitlands and Harvard Shakers

Last week we drove out to Central Massachusetts to see Fruitlands, an experimental community from the early nineteenth century. Fruitlands is located on a sloping hill above the Nashua River in an secluded location.

The community was founded by transcendentalist Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) and British philosopher Charles Lane. In the early twentieth century Clara Endicott Sears turned the land into an exhibit for the Fruitlands utopia as well as creating three other museums: one for local Native American art, one for the nearby Harvard Shaker community, and another for her collection of Hudson River School paintings.

Alcott and Lanes were interested in communitarianism, are were determined to create a community that could exist independently from the rest of society. They bought a farm to house themselves and their families; others bought farmland in the area. The community, for some reason, set itself up mid-summer, and was disbanded by the next January.

Part of the problem is that they failed to create enough supplies to allow them to survive the winter. The other part was the emotional drain on the families. Alcott and Lane spent time away from the community, raising money. They were friends of both Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson thought the two men were crazy, claiming that they continued to reach behind their backs to see if their wings had sprouted.

When things looked bad for Fruitlands, Alcott, spent time at Thoreau's farm. He tried to convince Alcott to become celibate with him. In the meantime, the families were thrown at the mercy of the local Shakers. Eventually, the Alcott family left them farm to find shelter with the local Shakers; the farmland itself was sold off to Joseph Palmer, a nut in his own right.

The farmhouse is one of the four museums; it is typical of a home from the era. The grounds outside were filled with sculptures from an artist who tries to find anthropomorphic characteristics in found items. The hills are covered with goldenrod and ragweed--pretty, but an allergy nightmare. The other museums are interesting. The Native American Museum has a small, but well-chosen, collection of local crafts. It's strength is the representation of native life after King Philip's War.

The Shaker house, which was relocated to Fruitlands, was less interesting--not as compelling as other Shaker Museums like Hancock Shaker Village. The gallery had some impressive Hudson River paintings--one of the Yosemite Valley seemed familiar--as well as examples of local Shaker crafts. Most of these were woven objects.

We drove from there to a peach orchard (they are in season now--had to make cobbler later). Then we went in search of the Harvard Shaker Village. The buildings are not part of a preservation effort--placards mark the beginning and end of the community. Most have been modernized--the brick covered over with siding, the dormitories subdivided into apartments. You had to look hard to see how Shakers had actually built these homes. Sad.

Finally, as we were driving away, my wife stopped to take pictures of these ruins. Posted by Hello


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