As one researches and explores the burned over district of Upstate, NY, outside of the big two faith systems developed here, being Mormonism, and Spiritualism, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as Shakers, are also typically referenced. However, unlike the other two faiths, Shakers do not have a “place” to go to. In New York, technically there are three Shaker sites and I say technically because one of these sites is not recognized like the other two. Chris and I visited two of these three sites together, one in Sodus Bay, New York and the other in Groveland, New York. I also had the opportunity to visit the third Shaker site in Watervliet, aka. modern day Albany, NY, because I had a few days off from work to travel and Chris did not. Chris fortunately gave me “permission” to see this site without him since we have yet to drive as far as Albany on our journey and probably never will. I will write about these three sites in the order which we (I) visited them.
Shaker Site(s) in Sodus Bay, New York
Chris and I were actually bored one day (imagine that!) and texting back and forth about where we could go. This was around the time that I had recently returned from an extended weekend up in the 1,000 Islands and was on a kick to visit the lighthouses of Lake Ontario (a quest I am still on by the way!). Chris suggested we go check out the lighthouses in Sodus Bay, so he picked me up and we headed east. This particular mini-adventure turned into seeing three separate sites. Keep in mind that Chris and I also visit many secular sites as we explore places, so we started this day exploring the ruins and abandoned buildings of Beechwood State Park, which is an old Girl Scouts of America camp just West of Sodus. This place is highly recommended for any urban explorers out there! From Beechwood we then drove into Sodus Bay to the old lighthouse and realized there was a wedding ceremony just coming to an end. We were able to walk around a little bit and tried not to be too voyeuristic, but we eventually left and went down to the pier to see the breakwater lighthouse. After walking around aimlessly, we got back in the car and started to drive towards where the Sodus Bay Shaker site used to be.
Now the Sodus Bay Shaker site is the one of the three sites that does not receive the recognition that the other two sites do, but the Shakers first came to Sodus Bay in 1826, and from here, proceeded to move to Groveland, NY in 1836. There is no sign or marker memorializing the site and one could easily simply drive by not knowing the history of what is there. Conveniently, the Sodus Bay Shaker site is located at the intersection of Shaker Tract Rd. (Red Mill Rd.) and Shaker Rd. Once there, Chris and I still drove right by it, not knowing what exactly to look for. We ended up turning around and driving back to ask two women we saw near the side of the road if they knew the whereabouts of the Shaker site in the area. When we pulled over and asked the woman, they simply explained that the existing Shaker buildings were right behind us. Chris and I turned around and seeing what the women were referring to, we asked permission if we could go on the property and look around, which we were given.
Chris and I quickly realized that the property is currently known as Alasa Farms, and on the farm is the Cracker Box Palace Farm Animal Refuge. From what we could tell, the only things original to the Shakers today are a house and a barn, and the entire property also appeared to be a bit run down. We were also told by one of the women that the house had actually caught fire and was not fully put back together, which was quite evident due to the tarp still being on the roof. Chris and I were a bit apprehensive as to how much we could actually explore on the property (and what we might find!), so we took some pictures and proceeded to leave after only a few minutes, thanking the women for allowing us to visit. One of us came up with the idea that there must be a cemetery around since some of the Shakers must have died while living there, so we drove around trying to find one. Unfortunately, we never found one, but we did end up flagging down a bicyclist and asking him if he lived in the area and what he knew of the Shakers. This guy on the bike was extremely friendly and actually invited us over to his house which was just down the street…and yes, we went. We ended up talking to this guy for only a few minute since eventually the guy’s wife came outside probably wondering who the heck her husband had invited over. We thanked the guy and left to get something to eat.
Shaker Site(s) in Groveland, New York
The Groveland Shaker site is a bit disconcerting, mainly because most of the land today is now owned by the New York State Department of Corrections, and houses the Groveland Correctional Facility, or prison. Yes, a prison. We knew that attempting to tour a prison would be next to impossible, and all we knew was that there might be one or two Shaker buildings available for the public to see. The prison is actually just south of Mt. Morris on Rt. 36, in the town of Sonyea. Up until this trip, I had thought the town of Sonyea was originally given its name from the acronym State Of New York Epileptic Asylum, but while on this trip learned that Sonyea comes from the original Native American name for the town.
When driving south on Rt. 36, one cannot miss the prison surrounded by barbed wire fences on the right hand side of the street. Plus, right in the lawn in front of the prison is a New York State historical marker which memorializes the Groveland Shaker community that once existed there. Now some may think this is all there is, but if you take a right on an indiscriminate side road right before the prison, the road wraps around to the back of the prison where some original Shaker houses still stand. Plus, right in front of these houses, there is a very large sign explaining who the Shakers are and how they came to be in Groveland by 1836, which is definitely helpful to make the traveler feel that they are indeed in the right place. There are definitely two original Shaker buildings on this site; being a meetinghouse and also regular home. Now directly behind these two houses is actually a small, run down golf course. This golf course is directly behind the prison and in fact butts up to the barbed-wire fence, meaning that inmates can simply walk up to the fence and watch a round of golf! It’s actually a bit weird. We definitely helped ourselves to seeing if both buildings were locked, and while the meeting house was indeed locked, the house actually was not. We did go into the house, but due to its condition, we quickly left in order to avoid being inside when it collapsed.
On the other side of the two original Shaker houses is an abandoned facility, and Chris and I had no idea what to make of it. We proceeded to walk up a small hill to the facility and saw that it too had a barbed wire fence, but this fence was actually open allowing whoever wants to the ability to walk right in and explore the grounds. As Chris and I walked up the hill, we quickly saw that it was not simply one abandoned facility building, but several abandoned buildings making up a complex, all in disheveled condition. We quickly became very excited and felt we were discovering something. We eventually found what probably used to be the main entrance to the complex, with the buildings being on the right, and a cemetery on the left. The sign marking the cemetery identified that it was indeed a Shaker cemetery. Chris and I could not believe what we were seeing since Shakers came to Groveland in 1836, meaning that the cemetery stones would be very old. Unfortunately, the stones were so uncared for that I did not see a single marker that was even readable, so we have no idea when the people were born or when they passed away, but it was still very exciting for us to see. I proceeded to walk around the grounds of the complex some more and eventually saw a sign which stated that Chris and I were in fact trespassing on property owned by the Department of Corrections. This raised our anxiety a bit, so we headed back to the car.
However, once in the car, we simply drove to the other side of the complex and discovered another cemetery, which was definitely much better cared for. At the entrance to this second cemetery there was sign which explained that we were in fact on the former grounds of the Craig Colony for Epileptics, which explained the abandoned buildings. Plus, this cemetery we were now looking at was the cemetery for the epileptics who had died in the colony. The sign also clarified that Sonyea is in fact not an acronym for the epileptic asylum. However, this did not dissuade Chris and I from becoming totally creeped out as to what did occur at the colony and what may have led to some being buried in the cemetery we were now standing in. After exploring a bit, Chris and I eventually left the grounds of the former Craig Colony feeling like we had found a lost civilization, and having more questions than when we started today’s journey. At the time of this writing, I have yet to read much about the Craig Epileptic Colony, but I do know that it was in existence from 1909- 1979 and that there are still several people around today who had experiences there. The journey of the former Shaker sites in Groveland, NY was incredible and definitely a great example as to why Chris and I do what we do.
Shaker Site(s) in Watervliet (aka Albany), New York
In 1736, a woman by the name Ann Lee was born in England. It is reported that,
“Ann came from an impoverished background, she never learned to read or write, and she was forced to work at menial tasks all of her life. She married unhappily and had four children all of whom died young. Open to “heavenly visions” which brought her new truths, she came to abhor “the depravity of human nature and the odiousness of sin,” particularly the act of sexual relations…In 1758 Ann was converted by James and Jane Wardley, themselves Quakers, who were the followers of a small group of French religionists who had taken refuge in England from persecution in France due to their beliefs. These French peasants claimed to have been inspired in their native land by the Holy Ghost, and they wished to return to the forms of primitive Christianity as they viewed that early faith. In their religiosity they were subject to trembling, fainting, trances, and given to visions and prophecies…They were therefore referred to derogatively as “the Shaking Quakers” and then eventually simply as the “Shakers.” They looked forward to the imminent Millennium, and they had gifts of speaking in tongues and of healing” (Crooked Lake Review, Fall 2005, Issue no. 137; found at http://www.crookedlakereview.com/books/ saints_sinners/martin6.html).
Leading a small group of Shakers who were fleeing religious persecution, Ann Lee arrived in New York City in 1774. Once in New York, the Shakers split up and some traveled further north and established a community at Niskayuna (the original Native American name for the town), now known as Watervliet (and more commonly identified as Albany, NY). Feeling dejected by her husband leaving her for another woman, Ann herself eventually joined those in Niskayuna as well.
Watervliet is considered the first Shaker settlement in America, and today consists of an area of land behind the Albany airport. It is kind of like the Genesee Country Village and Museum, and consists of ten original Shaker buildings, an original Shaker orchard and also a Shaker cemetery, where Ann Lee herself is buried. There are signs from the airport all the way to the front door of the welcome center telling people where to go, so I had no problem finding the place. As I approached the welcome center, which is in the original Shaker meeting house on the site, I was quickly confronted with the problem of which door to enter through, since there are three front doors right next to each other. I chose the center door since it had the sign “step up,” and walked in. I turned around to see where the other two doors were and from the inside saw that they are actually walled over from the inside. There was a small placard next to the door explaining the three front door situation and I learned that the rule of celibacy with the Shakers is so strictly enforced that not only are men and women not allowed to touch one another, they are also not allowed to handle something from one sex to the other, including doors. So the left door used to be for women or sisters, the right door is for men or brethren, and the center door is for the ministry. I was quickly greeted by a woman working in a gift shop who explained to me that a self-guided tour is the only type of tour offered, but that she would be available for any questions I may have. I was handed a pamphlet that actually did explain a lot about each building on the site, so I then went about exploring things on my own.
I wandered through the grounds of the former settlement and read every placard attached to every building since I knew that I more than likely would not be returning any time soon. I would occasionally take a picture of something with my phone and send it to Chris trying to show him some of the highlights. It would be very laborious of me to explain what each of the buildings were and what function they served to the community but I will say that highlight for me was seeing the grave of Ann Lee, because while she was not the founder of the Shaker faith, it was she who brought the faith to America even before America was a country! Eventually the State bought the land the original settlement was on and altered several of the buildings to their needs. The State also built an additional facility on the grounds to aid in the care for the elderly and even named the facility the Ann Lee Home. Today, like everything else the State of New York puts on original Shaker grounds, this facility is abandoned and is slowly deteriorating while being overtaken by Mother Nature. Like when at the Groveland site, I of course attempted to enter this building but it too was locked. After exploring for about an hour and a half, I eventually returned to the gift shop in the original meeting house to purchase my obligatory book (or any type of information available) that I try to buy when visiting every site we visit. I made some small talk with the lady inside and then eventually left, heading back into Albany.
Now the reader may have realized that the three sites we visited were not chronologically in order, so let me briefly explain… Ann Lee’s first Shaker community in Niskayuna (Watervliet, NY) was founded in 1776. However, due to their strict policy of celibacy, and also being the new faith “on the block,” the Shakers gained no new converts. It was not until 1780, when Ann Lee and several of her followers began to proselytize in towns across New England, did they slowly begin to build new Shaker settlements. Eventually, through these efforts, a new Shaker community was founded in Lebanon, Ohio, led by Richard Pelham. Unfortunately, Ann Lee is believed to have succumbed to trauma inflicted upon her by an unruly mob during one of her proselytizing efforts, and she passed away in 1784.
While visiting his brother’s residence in Lyons, NY, Richard Pelham got the great idea of establishing a new Shaker community in order to provide a way-station for those Shakers traveling from Watervliet, NY to Ohio. After receiving approval from the Central Ministry, the new Shaker community in Sodus Bay, NY was eventually established in 1826, leading the way to Groveland by 1836.
This still does not answer where the Shakers of Groveland are today, but the answer to this is quite simple. As America began to industrialize, individuals within every Shaker community did as well, and living such a simple, celibate life did not please everyone and elopements from the community began to occur regularly. By 1892, the existing Groveland Shakers decided to sell their land to the Craig Colony for Epileptics and the remaining members moved to other existing Shaker communities. Today, one active Shaker community still exists in America, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine…and in 2011, there were five existing members.