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The Boston Globe: “Back in time”

While inspecting one of the abandoned Shaker buildings on the property of the state prison in Shirley, John Wathne stumbled upon a mummified dog.

Probably a German shepherd, the dog lay under one of the floorboards of the decaying three-story brick building. It may have made its home there, or gotten trapped and starved to death.

Whatever the case, Wathne, a structural engineer, took it in stride. Dead animals often turn up in abandoned buildings.

“It didn’t put me in a good mood, but it didn’t scare me,” he said.

Still, dogs and other critters are a problem for preservationists, who are trying to prevent deterioration of the historic Shaker buildings while money is raised to restore the properties, and are trying to stimulate appreciation of a largely forgotten era in Shirley’s history.

David Hart, a historic preservation architect who inspected a nearby Shaker house, did not see the dog, but discovered a raccoon in the basement. All that remained were bones and skin, but it could be identified by its fur.

“Squirrels, skunks, raccoons, pigeons,” Hart recounted. “Any unwanted animal can go in there and make a mess.”

Last winter, Wathne and Hart submitted a report to the Shirley Historical Society about the condition of the two abandoned buildings, which they estimate date from the late 18th century. Their work was paid for by a $500,000 grant that the Shirley Historical Society received last year from the state Department of Travel and Tourism to restore the Shaker buildings on the state prison property.

“It’s important because it’s a part of our history in that area,” said state Senator Pamela P. Resor, an Acton Democrat. “Hopefully, by next winter, they’ll have winter rains and snows kept out of those buildings.”

Resor and state Representative James B. Eldridge, also a Democrat from Acton, helped Shirley get state funding to restore the buildings. Resor said she hopes the Shirley Shaker houses someday will become tourist attractions.

The Shakers created a self-sufficient religious community whose members believed in pacifism and celibacy.

Founded in the 18th century, the Shirley Shaker village grew to approximately 150 members by the mid-1800s, and was known in the region for its excellent applesauce and for taking in homeless children. (Since they were celibate, they had to replenish their ranks through recruitment and adoption.)

The Shirley village, which was called Pleasant Garden, is particularly important in the history of the Shakers because Mother Ann Lee, who brought the religion to America in 1774, visited the village a year before her death, according to Todd Burdick, director of education at the museum in the Hancock Shaker Village.

During Lee’s visit, a mob of townspeople attacked the settlement, hoping to run the Shakers out of town. Several community members were beaten, but the Shakers did not respond to the violence, Burdick said, and eventually the mob went away.

By 1909, the group’s size had diminished – after mandatory schooling laws prevented the community from adopting children – and the Shakers donated their land and buildings to the state.

A reform school for teenage boys whose criminal offenses were not severe enough to send them to the Concord Reformatory operated on the property from 1909 to 1972, when the state converted it into a prison.

Eleven Shaker buildings remain at the prison, of which four have been abandoned since the 1970s, according to Diane Wiffin, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction. These are the farmhouse, the office building, the boys’ home, and the laundry. The other seven are being repaired.

Wathne and Hart have not been able to enter the laundry and the boys’ house because they are unsafe. But they are hoping to peek into the two buildings this spring through openings in the roof and the windows.

At this point, the Shirley Historical Society does not have the money to restore the four vacant buildings and is focusing on keeping them “mothballed,” said the curator of the Shirley Historical Society, Meredith Marcinkewicz.

Society officials want to keep them watertight and well ventilated, and to prevent access by any unwanted visitors – people or animals, Hart said.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Shirley Shaker community was visited several times by Boston Globe reporters, who wrote lengthy articles describing their day trips to the picturesque village.

In July 1876, for instance, a reporter met a woman who had left her husband and children in Vermont to devote herself to a life of celibacy with the Shakers, because, she said, “I believe as they do.”

In August 1896, a Globe reporter visited the tombstones in the village cemetery. The writer noted that many of the Shaker “brothers” and “sisters” lived to be 80 or older.

The Shakers also, apparently, knew how to have fun. A short note in the Globe from Christmas Eve 1879 reported that several trustees from the Shirley Shaker village were facing charges for the “brewing and distilling of applejack in violation of US revenue law.”

While the restoration of the four abandoned buildings is on hold, the Shirley Historical Society is spending some of its grant money on the other seven Shaker buildings, which are currently in use or had been used by the prison in the last 10 years.

Three minimum-security prisoners have been hired to paint and clean these buildings at $1 a day, Wiffin said.

The restored buildings will house offices, a “stress unit” for prison employees who are dealing with stress on the job, and possibly a visitors center focusing on Shirley Shaker history.

The center would include a map of the village, as well as photographs of what it used to look like. But it will not be a full-time museum, Marcinkewicz said, because the society cannot afford to hire someone to keep the center open all week.

The restoration work will erase the history of the boys’ school and return the structures to their more-distant Shaker past.

Room partitions and trims added by the reform school, which Marcinkewicz termed “inappropriate modifications,” will be demolished.

Members of the only remaining Shaker village in the country, Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, did not return phone calls seeking comment on this story.

But Anthony Secondo, president of the Enfield Historical Society in Enfield, Conn., where a Shaker village was turned into a state prison, noted that Shakers were against capital punishment, did not have jail facilities in their villages, and “had no way of physically punishing somebody.”

Most likely, he said, “Shakers would dislike the idea of prisons going into their property.”


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