Amy Bess Williams Miller

'Boundless energy' used to create lasting institutions

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If it wasn't for a wedding gift, we might not have Hancock Shaker Village to appreciate today.

Amy Bess Williams Miller was gifted a Shaker dining table as a wedding gift after her marriage to Lawrence K. "Pete" Miller, former publisher and owner of The Berkshire Eagle, in October of 1933. Amy Bess would later go on, spurred by her love and interest in that original piece of Shaker craftsmanship, to help found Hancock Shaker Village through a large-scale restoration project, turning the once living Shaker community into a living museum still enjoyed today.

In the late 1950s, the last of the Shakers at Hancock were leaving the village. At that time, Amy Bess was immersed in Shaker history and culture and was determined to preserve the tradition for future generations. According to The American Antiquarian Society, she toured museums and historical villages in the United States and Canada, and raised money to restore the 17 buildings at the village. She also wrote four books about the Shakers: one about Shaker cooking, another on the Shaker image, yet another on Shaker medicinal herbs, and a fourth describing Hancock Shaker Village as a "City of Peace."

John Ott, who was the Shaker Village director from 1970 to 1983, described her as a "powerhouse."

"She practiced leadership in everything and kept her staff energized. She married the collections, the land, the philosophy and the buildings into one. It was a picture of the Shakers as they were in Berkshire County — a powerful story," he said, according to Amy Bess' American Antiquarian Society obituary. In 2003, Amy Bess died at her home in Pittsfield. She was 90.

Born Amy Bess Williams on May 4, 1912, in El Paso, Texas, she was the daughter of Dr. Frederick R. Williams and Elizabeth Avery Taft Williams. The family moved to Worcester when she was 5, and that's where she grew up. She graduated from both Bancroft School in Worcester and Miss Hall's in Pittsfield. Amy Bess studied art history and architecture at Sorbonne University in Paris.

She was the first woman named as president of the Pittsfield Community Chest and received a national preservation award from the Garden Club of America. She was also president of the Berkshire Athenaeum from 1944 to 1979. She was the one who issued a plea for a new library in 1972 — another one of her ideas that came to fruition and is still enjoyed today. From 1964 to 1970, she served on the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

In 1995, her alma mater, Miss Hall's School, awarded her The Distinguished Alumna Award, saying: "She exhibits an enviable combination of infectious enthusiasm, grace, wit, kindness, and boundless energy."

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, The Berkshire Eagle

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