November 28, 2011

The Steve Jobs of 1780

I like a little bit of history, and I like living in New England where much of the past centuries' imprints on our landscape have been preserved or restored.

I particularly like the Shakers.  They were a utopian religious group in the 1700s and 1800s with some beliefs that we find unusual today.  I like them because they were innovative gardeners.

The Shakers were the Steve Jobs of their time, known for exquisite simplicity of design in their furniture, buildings and tools, and for doing things in new ways. They created essential everyday products the early settlers didn't even know they needed.

They were the first to collect seeds, put them in little envelopes and sell them.  Think about the innovation of that simple process as you sow your garden next spring, and thank the Shakers. 

Last month we took a day to visit the Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts. The village was built in the 1780s for the community of Believers that eventually grew to 300 people in the 1800s, but by 1959 there were no more Shakers at Hancock.  You can now wander through 20 carefully restored buildings and tour the gardens and fields they farmed.

It is famous for its iconic round barn, a stunner of an innovation when it was built in the early 1800s.   Feeding the animals arranged around a central silo inside was an efficiency improvement, and it was simply a beautiful building as well.

This is the entrance to the village.  Do you see something odd behind the white fence?

It is a large ground mount installation of solar panels, and a roof array that spans the entire antique barn roof.  This is what greets visitors as they head into the village and step back two centuries.

And it is completely appropriate.

A small sign tells us that if the Shakers were still an active producing community here, they would have been the first to embrace solar technology.  The panels provide a third of the energy for the whole complex, which includes a visitor center, museum, offices and a cafe.

Simple, elegant looking, efficient and useful.

Now, when I see solar panels on buildings and homes around the city, I think of them as Shaker Panels.

Shaker seed packets


  1. Fascinating, Laurrie! I'm sure the Shakers would have embraced solar technology, too, and maybe a windmill as well, though I can see the old-fashioned windmills here, not the huge ones of today. We have a couple old round barns in our area that have been preserved, thankfully; one was turned into a popular restaurant long ago.

  2. This is a wonderful story. I enjoy your blog.

  3. Good point about solar panels' likely appeal to that Shaker community. The design *is* clean, like the energy. Your piece reminds me: I need to get a small panel to charge my gadgets during the next power failure.

  4. You might want to look at a book I just finished reading -- The Great Divorce by Illyon Wu. It's an interesting look at the early years of Shaker villages and how they interacted with their neighbors in the larger communities. Hancock Village has a prominent place in the story.

  5. Perfect! I think the Shakers would have embraced solar technology too. If only the govt would get behind funding solar energy rather than coal mining more people would use it. When we built our house 15 years ago solar was out of our price range at the time; I need to check into it again.

  6. Rose, the round barns are so symbolic of the Shakers all over the northeast and midwest. A restaurant? I guess that's one way to preserve them!

    Cristy, I am glad you find good stuff here. Thanks!

    Lee, I too have ordered a small solar panel for charging gadgets. We had nothing but sun the whole week after the Oct. snowstorm, and I could have had everything charged for free!

    Tricia, What an interesting reference. Thanks for the book recommendation, I'm going to check it out. I love to learn more about the places I've been to.

    Sweetbay, Amen on the funding and subsidy issue for solar. Connecticut no longer has an installation rebate program except for solar hot water. (I want whole house). Your state may have a clean energy fund with more $$ available, check it out!

  7. Great post, Laurrie. That round barn is amazing.


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.