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The Boston Globe: “Shaker village stirs back to life, with hand from prisoners”

Every tool – from power drills to razor blades used to scrape old paint off the windows – had to be counted and locked up at the end of each day. Every square inch of sand paper was inventoried, for fear it could be used to sharpen tools into weapons.

Restoring an old Shaker village on the grounds of the state prison in Shirley wasn’t your typical construction project.

Ten minimum security inmates from MCI-Shirley worked eight hours a day for a year to repair nine buildings. At a wage of $5 per day, they painted walls, rebuilt broken windows, and repaired porches.

And when the project’s completion was celebrated last month, they were thanked – in absentia – by the man who oversaw them but never knew their offenses or their full names.

“I have to mention the inmates,” Alvin Collins, manager of the Shaker village restoration project, told about 50 politicians, historical society representatives, and the Department of Correction commissioner during the ceremony at the prison. “They really took an interest in the project. They truly cared about what they were doing.”

The project was undertaken through a $500,000 grant the Shirley Historical Society received from the state’s Office of Travel and Tourism. Though three of the buildings will be used by the prison, the Historical Society will continue to organize public tours of the Shirley Shaker Village this fall.

“It’s wonderful. It preserves the Shaker village and some of the buildings that were really in disrepair,” society president Linda Dressler said of the restoration. “The Shaker village died out years ago, and it’s all we have left of the essence of the Shaker movement.”

The inmates did not attend last month’s ceremony, and were not allowed to be interviewed, but Collins spoke warmly of his workers. They sought his advice on how to start their own businesses when they got out, he said, and wanted him to think of them as “the good bad guys,” who were dedicated to the job.

Founded in 1793, the Shaker village was home to a self-sufficient religious community whose members believed in pacifism and celibacy. The village was known in the region for its excellent applesauce and for taking in homeless children. (Since Shakers were celibate, they had to replenish their ranks through recruitment and adoption.)

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

In 1850, at its peak, the Shaker community listed 114 men, women and children in the state census, but by 1908 the village had only three sisters living there, after mandatory schooling laws prevented the community from adopting children, and the Shakers donated their land and buildings to the state.

A residential school for teenage boys in trouble with the law, but whose criminal offenses were not severe enough to send them to the Concord Reformatory, operated on the property from 1909 until 1979, when the state converted it to a prison.

From the windows in one of the restored homes, one can look out through green foliage. Outside, wildflowers take over behind the wooden fence, and birds can be heard singing from trees the Shakers could have planted.

Greg McCann, deputy superintendent of MCI-Shirley’s minimum-security section, will move into his new office in a restored Shaker building on July 1, according to Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin. The prison’s accounting department is also relocating there.

Another Shaker structure, which was previously unoccupied, will soon serve as a facility for prison employees. At the end of last month, eight investigators moved their offices into a third restored Shaker house, where one room will be used for tours hosted by the Shirley Historical Society.

On the walls hang painted maps of the Shaker village. The room is furnished with a long table and 12 Shaker chairs with cotton woven seats and low backs. Along the room’s perimeter, the chairs can be hung on the walls upside down, as was the custom among the Shakers.

The Shirley Historical Society spent $5,500 on the new furniture, according to Carolyn Smith, a mail-order manager at Shaker Workshops, an Ashburnham company that makes measured reproductions of the simple but sturdy furniture made famous by other Shaker enclaves.

Meanwhile, the fate of several other houses in the village is uncertain. A number will remain boarded up, and one of the largest – called the laundry – has been deemed beyond repair. Considering the cost to demolish a building, said Meredith Marcinkewicz, curator of the Shirley Historical Museum, the best option is to simply “let it fall down.”

David Hart, a historic preservation architect who inspected the Shaker houses before the renovation, said the historic value of a village is in the whole ensemble.

“There are a number of buildings that have been moved off-site already,” he said. “It’s like the broken tooth theory – if you take out too many teeth,” the rest will fall out. But restoring the laundry, a brick structure with a collapsed wall, could cost “in the seven figures,” he said.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, who helped the Shirley Historical Society secure the grant, said that in this economic climate he will not push for more funds.

Because the Shaker buildings are on prison property, tours of the village must be organized about a month in advance, Marcinkewicz said. The prison system and the Shirley Historical Society cooperate on setting up dates, and a correctional officer who has the key to the Shaker buildings serves as an escort.

“It’s not the kind of place that you can just drop by, you have to plan way ahead,” she said.

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