Thursday June 3, 2010

It was Halloween night, but there would be no trick or treat for Clara Sperle. Her father was sending her to live with the Shakers.

Overworked and unable to care for the 8-year-old after his wife died of tuberculosis, John Sperle was giving his child to the Shakers to raise and educate, a move that others in his situation had relied on before.

Taken by car from her home in Yonkers, N.Y., Clara Sperle said of that night in 1925: "I went to this big house [the Brick Dwelling on the Hancock Shaker Village grounds] and it was dark, and I was just a little girl and I was kind of scared to death.

"But," she went on to say in a videotaped interview at the village in 2005, "it didn't last very long ... when the [day]light came on, I saw what a lovely place it was. And I was treated so good and so kind."

Sperle stayed with the Shakers until she was 18, the last child to grow up in the Hancock community. She went to New York City, returned briefly to the Shakers, then left for good and got a job supervising a restaurant kitchen in New York. She later met and married Harold Zeitlin, whose family owned the William Morris Agency of talent scouts. They raised three children.

At her husband's prodding, she changed her name from Clara to the more distinctive Clair.

As an adult, Clair Zeitlin never talked about her Shaker upbringing. "I was very embarrassed," she said. "People thought it was about free love and free living. I never mentioned it.


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Zeitlin, the last surviving Hancock Shaker, died in 2007 at age 91 and is buried in the Hancock Shaker Village cemetery, but the videotaped interviews she gave open a window to how the Hancock Shakers lived.

Gary Leveille, a Great Barrington historian and writer whose great- great- grandparents were raised by Shakers, discovered Zeitlin in 2003 through a mutual friend. Zeitlin, who then was a widow living in Florida, agreed to an interview.

Two years later, she decided she wanted to see her one-time Shaker home again and came to Hancock with her family. The visit was videotaped by museum officials.

Remarkably sharp in memory, Zeitlin made vivid the color, warmth and humor of Shaker life and of the personalities that museum staffers knew only as fading black-and-white photographs.

Todd Burdick, the village's director of education, described Zeitlin on that visit as "funny, outgoing, vivacious and full of life."

"What would I have done?" she asked them of the situation she faced in 1925. "My daddy worked overtime because things were rough, and there I am sitting and waiting, hungry, nothing to eat."

An aunt, worried about the child's well-being, urged her father to place her with the Shakers.

"And thank God she did," Zeitlin said.

"This was before adoption laws began tightening up in the early to mid- 20th century," Burdick told The Eagle, "making it more difficult, expensive and time-consuming for the Shakers - or anyone else, for that matter - to legally adopt." In the earlier years, he said, children came to the Shakers when their parents joined. Later, he said the Shakers began "to purposefully seek out orphans, homeless, or otherwise underprivileged children ... to help make up for their declining membership.

At Hancock, Zeitlin was one of eight girls, each of whom was looked after by an older woman.

Because the Shakers were celibate, men and women lived in separate quarters and did separate work, seldom mingling, even in religious services.

Girls were schooled apart from boys. "I adored Elizabeth Belden, my teacher," Zeitlin said. "She wasn't only our teacher, she was our pal. When we had problems, she was our sounding board."

When Zeitlin took the New York state regents examination, required for high school graduation, she said she passed "with flying colors."

She said life never felt confined.

"There was this thinking that they had you captured and you couldn't get away," she said. "We didn't have any of that. If you didn't like it, you were free to leave."

When not in the classroom, Zeitlin said she "did a lot of dairy work - separating the cream, milk and whey," and helping in the kitchen.

"What was wonderful about the Shakers was if there was a project ... we did everything together," she said, often singing as they worked.

In her free time, she described her delight at jumping from the Round Stone Barn's rafters into the hay below and lazing about in the fields. "I was always a dreamer. I loved nature," she said.

Life in the community wasn't totally isolated from the outside world.

"We would put on the most wonderful plays ... made costumes and all," she said. "People in Pittsfield .. would come, and they just loved it." Visitors also came to buy bread or gifts at the Shaker store, or just out of curiosity.

"We didn't promote guests coming into the house," Zeitlin said. "They get nosy, prowl around and get where they don't belong and they would steal things for souvenirs.

Among famous visitors she remembered were Henry Ford and Grace (Mrs. Calvin) Coolidge.

"To me they were just somebody else," she said. "It never had an effect on me because I lived a simple life. The Shakers were polite. Nobody was superior."

Reflecting on the fact that she was the last survivor of those who had lived at Hancock Shaker Village, she said: " I wish I'd never left the Shakers. They all [died and] left me."

To reach Charles Bonenti: cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6211.

Learn more

To view videos of Clair Zeitlin's interviews, visitors can make an appointment with the Hancock Shaker Village Curatorial Department at (413) 443-0188.