Thursday June 3, 2010

HANCOCK - During the 1800s, the peak of the local Shaker community, the quest for a spiritual utopia led to technological advancements that remain in use today.

Some were enhancements of existing technology that helped the Shakers achieve their daily farm goals more effectively in less time, allowing more time for prayer.

Todd Burdick, director of education at Hancock Shaker Village, said that in the 1790s, the village became the first farming operation to sell seeds in small paper packets - a practice that's still prevalent.

The Shakers also invented a simple broom vise to make flat brooms, widely considered to be better than the traditional round versions.

Given their agricultural operation, and their need to feed, clothe and house as many as 300 people in the Shaker village, technological improvements helped make their winters warmer, their summers cooler, and aided them in easing the burden of chores such as preparing meals, doing laundry, building furniture, and having running water.

Burdick said the Shakers piped water in from streams in the nearby hills in wooden pipes initially; later, the pipes were upgraded to iron.

The force of the moving water was used to power the machine shop, where saws, planers and lathes were used to make furniture parts - a mainstay of the Shaker economy - through the use of gears and belts. In the same building, water power helped in the laundry operation by turning the washing tubs and spinning the water extractor.

The wood stoves in the laundry room had brackets added so that the irons could be stacked around the sides of the cone- shaped stove. While someone was ironing, another iron would be heating on the stove for use when the first iron cooled.

In heating the buildings, Shakers positioned wood stoves and the exhaust pipes in the center of the rooms, rather than against a wall, to make use of heat from the stoves and pipes throughout the room. Then the exhaust pipes passed through stairwells and other rooms to capture more of the heat inside as it traveled to the chimney.

The Shakers also invented the no-kill mouse trap, a circular wire cage with a small hole in the top. One would bait the trap with cheese, and a mouse would climb in through the hole and would be unable to climb out. Burdick said he didn't know why a no-kill trap was created or what happened to the mice after they were captured, but he speculated that they were exterminated. Burdick said that whatever the Shakers did, they gave it plenty of thought.

In the 1830s, he said, the Shaker kitchen was state of the art. The apple peelers, apple corers, the running water and the built-in baking, boiling and steaming ovens were effective for cooking and in their secondary use - helping to heat the living quarters.

"The Shakers were not inventors on a massive scale, but in lots of little bits and pieces," Burdick said. "But when you add them all together, their impact can be seen on a much larger scale."

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6241.