Watervliet (2007)

Watervliet is a documentary about the first Shaker Settlement in America. It was produced as a commission for the Shaker Heritage Society in Albany, NY, in 2007.


text from the script:

TWO years before the American Independence, a handful of individuals from Manchester, England, arrived to New York Harbor.

They were said to be a communal religious sect known as the United Society of Believers of Christ’s Second Appearing.

They believed in collective ownership and celibacy, and their religious ceremonies took the form of strong physical movement. Trance and vision were followed by bodily agitation, singing, dancing, and uttering of inspired truths.

They would become known as the Shakers.

Led by a woman named Ann Lee, they soon settled at a place called Niskayuna, close to Albany.

Ann Lee had a vision that she shared with her followers. She saw their religion attracting great numbers of believers.

That was the beginning of the Shaker faith; Shaker communities proliferated throughout America; from New England to Kentucky and Indiana. The Shakers would build a society that would span four centuries and thousands of members, and would become one of the most successful utopian spiritual movements in the United States, influencing many aspects of American life.

It all started here in Watervliet.

But who were the Shakers?

they described themselves as follows:

“We believe we are debtors to God in relation to each other, and all men, to improve our time and talents in this life, in that manner in which we might be most useful.

Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling”

Spiritually, the Shakers thought they were already living in the millennium. In this new creation and coming of God, all were equal regardless of color, sex and age.- therefore the Shakers accepted converts from all ethnic groups.

The Shakers were pacifists and faced fierce prosecution during the war of independence and, later on, the Civil War. Black slaves who would turn to the Shaker community, according to their rules, would gain their freedom.

Aside from their social ideas, the Shakers were mocked for their way of dressing and for apparently existing out of time.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote about them that their socialist practices of shared property and civil disobedience would “carry us back to the times of darkest bigotry and barbarism”. Abraham Lincoln had reservations with their pacifism and their request for exemption from going to war.

And yet, the Shakers were also valued by “the world”, as they called them, as honest and hardworking people. Shaker shops sold clothing, furniture and preserves to nearby towns, and Shaker schools were considered amongst the best.

Mother Ann soon started a trip throughout the United States to spread the Shaker faith. Her long trips, which would last for several months, took her as far as Kentucky, and she converted hundreds to the new religion.  The Shakers benefited from a wave of revivalist faith that spread throughout the rural areas of the young United States.  But this was not an easy task: Ann Lee was imprisoned and accused of witchcraft repeated times.

Tired and ill from the physical toll of her missionary enterprises, Mother Ann returned to Watervliet in 1784 and shortly died after. She is buried here in the place where she founded her faith.

Shakers are popularly known for the simplicity and minimal beauty of their furniture. They closey followed Mother Ann Lee’s precept that no unnecessary element should be used, and that every detail mattered because it was an offering to God.

The sense of simplicity and practical sense of the Shakers is also visible in their architecture.

The 1847 meeting house in Watervliet was built at a time when the community had peaked in numbers.  The building has an extremely long inner space that sustains itself with no columns whatsoever, for services that included singing, dancing, and praying.

The meeting house has two doors on one side for men and women to enter separately.  Another set of entrances, on the South side, was intended for exclusive use of the elders.  The people “from the world” would access the building from the opposite side and would observe the ceremony from a separate section of the house.

The Shakers had very specific and organized choreographies for each one of their many marches, dances and laboring songs. The singers would generally remain in a certain area while the men and the women would follow symmetrical movements on either side of the meeting house space.

The period from 1837 to the early 1850s, was very special time for the Shakers. It marked an unusual number of visits to them by heavenly spirits. a time that became known as the era of manifestations or mother Ann’s work. The era of manifestations started here, at Watervliet, and soon spread to the other Shaker communities. Angels and other spirits appeared personally to deliver gifts such as songs, dances, and visions. Their purpose, according to the Shakers, was to deliver immediate knowledge on heaven and of those who lived there, and to instruct the faithful on how they should act and believe. These apparitions were recorded by the Shakers in a number of drawings of the period, known as gift drawings.

The Shakers did not think much of the word “art”, nor did art have an official role in their lives. Like in the Middle Ages, there was no art for art’s sake; no object should be made without a purpose.  Yet, every single object made by the Shakers has a unique and distinctive imprint, an expression of perfect form that we can only see as beautiful and artistic. For the Shakers, every object had to be beautiful because every action was an offering to God.

Contrary to some belief, the Shakers were progressive in their daily living, and constantly tried to find ways to improve their systems of agriculture, food production, medicine and construction, amongst many others.

One of the great contributions of the Watervliet Shakers to the world was the flat broom. Mother Ann believed that cleanliness was an extremely important sign of respect to God, and thus the Shakers developed the flat broom as a more efficient method for sweeping corners and surfaces of their dwellings.

Being landowners and involved in growing vegetables and fruits, the Shakers also initiated the garden seed industry. The Shakers invented the first washing machine, as well as many mechanical devices for carpentry. The inventor Gail Borden  worked with the Shakers to invent the process of condensed milk, using a Shaker vacuum pan used for the production of sugar.

Due to the arrival of the industrial revolution and the fast changes in American Society, the hard labor and demanding communal life of the Shakers started to loose appeal amongst potential converts. Towards the middle of the XIXth Century, communities started to decline in numbers and grow in age. Toward the third quarter of the nineteenth century communities started to close one by one.

In Watervliet,  the West Family property was sold in 1915, and the North family property four years later, paving the way for the construction of the Albany County Airport.

The Church Family farm was sold in 1924, and later acquired by the county of Albany.

On April 15 1927, a strong fire quickly consumed thirteen remaining buildings of the North family. Followed by another fire in 1932, the entirety of the North family buildings were consumed. The last Shaker family in Watervliet, the South family, closed after the death of eldress Anna Case, in 1938. On that day, the bell of the dwelling house was tolled for the last time in Wisdom’s Valley.

Watervliet, the cradle for the Shaker faith, would go through a series of transformations that are representative of the way American society has evolved, with a football field, an airport, highways and commercial buildings surrounding the original Shaker land.

In today’s America, one may ask what is to be learned from the Shaker experience. The Shakers, like other religious groups, were seen as fanatics, and their world as something alien and eccentric. And yet, there was a coherence of vision in their faith and in their actions that to an outsider becomes clear by looking at their works and listening to their songs. There is also an essence of American spirit in what they did. Aaron Copland and Martha Graham, in creating the quintessential American work, Appalachian Spring, based their inspiration on Shaker songs and dances.

At a time when we ask ourselves of the state of  the American spirit of freedom and the belief of mutual understanding that became the foundation of this country, it is useful to remember the most famous Shaker song Simple Gifts, a song that summarizes these ideas:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free

‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be

and when we find ourselves in the place just right

‘twill be the place of love and delight.

The journey that started here in Watervliet may now be far away in time. And yet, what remains here is an enduring artistic and spiritual legacy, a vision of a perfect conjunction of all aspects of human activity. The Shakers proved the enduring nobility of remaining true to one’s ideals against all odds, and all ages.