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Buildings in the center of Harvard Shaker Village
Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Commission

The Harvard Settlement was the second Shaker community in the United States and the first in Massachusetts. Following a period of religious unrest, a number of dissenters abandoned the Protestant Church of Harvard and constructed in 1769 what was to become known as the Square House. Seeking to establish relations with these idealistic zealots, Mother Ann visited the leaderless group in 1781 and quickly brought them into the folds of the United Society of Believers. Occasionally residing in the Square House herself, Mother Ann gradually cemented Shaker influence over the region and established a community of Shakers here over the next few years.

Similar to other Shaker settlements, the Harvard Shaker Village was developed following the standard Family layout, with the Church, North, South, and East complexes--only the latter two remain today. Laboring together, the members of the Families effectively reworked the landscape to the community's advantage. Digging drainage canals where necessary, the Shakers succeeded in turning the surrounding marshlands into productive, arable land, suitable for agriculture. Not only did they modify the flatlands, but the Shakers altered the nearby hills as well. Requiring a suitable place for their outdoor religious practices, the Believers leveled the summit of nearby Holy Hill and planted rows of maples in accordance with the layout mentioned in the Millennial Laws (Shaker regulations for everyday life). They toiled to reshape the world around them as they attempted to create a "heaven on earth."

[rotating photos] Cemetery and Shaker Ministry of Harvard Shaker Village
Cemetery: courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Commission, Ministry: Photograph by A. Vose, from National Register collection

To further the development of their utopian society, the Shakers put great care into their construction of buildings as well. The two most significant buildings of Harvard Shaker Village are not surprisingly located at the center of the Church Family complex. The design and placement of the Meetinghouse, built in 1791, signified that it was the most important building of the community--the center of social and religious interaction. With a clapboard-sheathed exterior, granite steps, and four entrances--separated both by gender and for the elders--the Meetinghouse adhered to the prescribed design established by the Society. Built about 50 years later, the New Office was the site of a number of important activities. A full 6 stories high, daily business occurred on the first floor while the trustees, guests, and office staff worked above. Today, the New Office interior still contains an exceptional example of Shaker-built cabinetry. Positioned near the South Family complex, the Harvard Shaker Village Cemetery offers a different look at Shaker history. With the first burial recorded in 1792, the cemetery is the final resting place of more than 300 members of the Harvard community. Walking among the cast iron grave markers, visitors can follow chronologically the life and times of the people of the Harvard Shaker Village and slowly piece together the past for themselves. In the 1850s, the population peaked at about 200 members and its landholdings totaled more than 2,000 acres. After the Civil War, many of the members left and the population plummeted to under 40 by 1890. The Shakers were forced to sell both the East and North Family areas. In the early 20th century, the remaining Eldresses sold Harvard's first office building, built in 1794, to preservationist Clara Endicott Sears who moved the building to Fruitlands Museum and opened it to the public.

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The Harvard Shaker Village Historic District is located on Shaker Rd. in Harvard, Massachusetts. The buildings of the district are private residences and are not open to the public. The surrounding land is under a conservation easement. The Harvard Shaker Village Historic District is also featured in our Places Where Women Made History itinerary.

 

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