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Shakers (and Movers)


This article appeared in the Journal Herald on July 29, 1978



Roz Young


     Melba Hunt sat in her office at the Kettering-Moraine Museum & Historical Society praying that it does not rain next Saturday and Sunday. These are the days on which the society is holding its second annual Ohio Shaker festival. Everything is going to be outdoors and there is so much of it that there isn’t room enough inside to manage.

     Melba, who lives in a historic house and who cooks nothing but historic food for her husband and her, could spend her days as women usually do, shopping, sewing a fine seam, playing bridge, golfing, traveling. Instead she gives her time every day to the society, arranging tours of the museum, thinking up ways to add to the museum’s extensive collection, raising funds for new acquisitions and upkeep.

     “It’s that I love history,” she said, sitting behind a desk that was once Charles Kettering’s. “It started with a love of old houses. When I was six or so, I began begging my parents to take me to every old house we could find around our town of Coshocton, and for bedtime reading, my mother read me stories out of histories.

     “When my husband and I were looking for a home in Dayton, we studied all the history books, Drury, Beers, Conover, and found our home in Kettering. In our reading we found that there was once a Shaker settlement in our area. Then when we were returning from a Florida trip in 1969, we stopped at the Shaker settlement in Pleasant Hill, Ky., which was in the process of restoration. It kindled my interest in finding out about the old Shaker settlement here. When we came home, I read The Shakers of Ohio, a 1901 publication of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society.”

     Off to the library she went to consult an old Montgomery County atlas. The Shaker village was marked; it was on what now are the grounds of the Dayton Mental Health Center. As she drove through the grounds, she came to a brick building she recognized at once as pure Shaker, abandoned and used as a storehouse in the former pasture. She explored the house and found benches, a cupboard and numerous other treasures. That was the beginning of the Shaker rooms in the museum. Over the years it has grown vigorously with a permanent loan from the Hunts, an extensive one from Steve Kintzler of Cincinnati and several pieces from descendants of Shakers in Dayton and Kettering.

     Since there was no Shaker festival in Ohio, Melba started one last year. This coming Saturday and Sunday is the second one, and that is why she was praying.

     The program will begin with a Shaker meeting each day at 11 a.m. At noon a luncheon will be served, fried and barbecued chicken, Sister Josphine’s baked beans and Shaker cole slaw, desserts and apples. Shaker baked goods will be sold each day and visitors can take part in a tea tasting. The tea will be made from herbs grown and packaged by the Shakers at Sabbathday, Me. Shaker crafts will be exhibited and demonstrated and a slide presentation will acquaint visitors with the Shakers.

     Probably the highlight of the day will be Shaker dances performed at 1, 3 and 6 p.m. each day. The ground and exhibits are free, the slide show 50 cents, the dance 50 cents and the luncheon $2.50. A combination ticket for all events is $3.

     Six Shakers are still living at Sabbathday Lake and three at Canterbury, N.H. When they are gone, the last of one of the most unusual religious groups in our history will have disappeared.

     “I feel an attraction to the Shaker’s spiritual life,” Melba said. “When you learn the Shaker dances, you begin to feel somewhat as they might have felt, that there is a special feeling in performing the dances. Most of the dancers last year agreed with me and said that they too felt this overwhelming feeling. Most people asked us after the performances if I was starting the movement again. The answer is no; we are doing this historically to depict the Shaker way of life and worship.

     “I find it very hard to explain to people the reason for the Shakers’ decline was not because they did not propagate. It was mainly for economic reasons following the Civil War and the growth of the machine age. They just could not make it financially because they made their livelihood by farming and the sale of hand-crafted items.

     “It is true that the celibate life is most difficult for people to lead and the Shakers had to carry their crosses to be able to do this. Their basic belief was through Mother Ann Lee that Christ, as an indwelling spirit, had come among them. They wanted to make a kingdom of God on earth.”

     Shakers received their name because their singing often began with a violent shaking of the head from side to side. Gradually more uniform exercise developed because the singing and dancing expressed the “spirit” of the religious experience and in time the followers felt that the expression of their feelings should be uniform.

     The Shaker dancers will perform a number of dances, the first one the very first dance performed by the real Shakers, Come Life, Shaker Life. The music was written by Issacher Bates, a Shaker missionary who had been a fifer in the Revolution and later became one of the elders at the Watervilet settlement in Dayton.

     It will be an unusual experience to see these dances next weekend right here in our own area. Come on out. I’ll look for you. Come out South Dixie Drive almost to Stroop Road. The grounds are on the left.