Last Living Shakers Authorize N.H. Craftsman To Produce Iconic Chair

Feb 4, 2015

For the first time in their history, the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in Maine have authorized production of an authentic Alfred Shaker Chair.  While the Shakers will oversee the process, the actual chair will be made by Adam Nudd-Homeyer of Sandwich [Adam's story can be heard here].  

The village at Sabbathday Lake itself is not surprising.  An 18th century New England colony of red barns and white meeting houses clustered around a four story homestead where the last 3 living Shakers in the world reside.

If the village is what you'd expect to find - the Shakers themselves are not. Michael Graham - who is not a Shaker - is the Director at Sabbathday Lake.

"The general preconceived notion about the Shakers is that they are otherworldly.  That it's a very stern, simplistic, austere life.  Brother Arnold told me 20 years ago that the Shakers have always been ordinary people attempting to live an extraordinary life." 

The Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake
Credit Sean Hurley for NHPR

In the basement of the dwelling house, Sister Frances checks her cats.

"One was gurgling so I thought he was having a problem." 

The Dwelling House, where the last 3 Shakers in the world reside.
Credit Sean Hurley for NHPR

87 years old and hard of hearing, Sister Frances hums as she passes the kitchen where Brother Arnold runs water over this evening's meal. 

"What is supper tonight?
 Actually mussels, they had a great buy on them."

Brother Arnold makes all the meals.  He rises at 6.  Breakfast is at 7:30. Prayers follow and then it's off to the barns.

"We have 41 sheep at the moment, we have six cows and three pigs and barn cats that need to be fed."

In a forest green sweater and tan work pants, Brother Arnold dresses like someone you'd see at the grocery store. Any idea that the Shakers shun the outside world is quickly dispelled.

"A lot of people think we're just like the Amish.  I first came here- (his cell phone rings)
See I think people would probably think you wouldn't have a cell phone.
I sometimes wish I didn't."

Michael Graham -

"It drives him crazy. The phone, constantly text messages, phone calls, he's never free.
 Who's always texting him?
 Me!"

Brother Arnold Skypes and Googles.  At night, he and the two Sisters watch television.

Michael Graham says these modern habits helped keep the living Shakers off the public radar. But Brother Arnold believes that's about to change.

"Something started in July. It was a very kind of quiet whisper but there's something that's coming down for us. So we just have to be open to it and be ready to accept whatever that gift is God is going to give us."

As Director of Sabbathday Lake, Michael Graham also participates in the daily barn chores
Credit Sean Hurley for NHPR

To that end, when a local company, Chilton Furniture, floated the idea of bringing a Shaker chair back into production, the Shakers readily agreed - with one caveat - Chilton had to find the right chair maker. Chilton General Manager Nate Gobeil says that search ended when they found Adam Nudd-Homeyer making his Shaker-style Tappan Chairs at the Sandwich Fair.

"Adam is very unique.  He just does things in a fantastic style.  He does a historic building of the furniture." 

In a room lined with 150 year old Shaker rockers and furniture, Brother Arnold waits for Adam to present his prototype chair, modeled after an 1830's Alfred Shaker ladder back.  

"Where's your chair?
Out in the car. You want me to go get it?
Please I want to see it."

Brother Arnold sits in a prototype of the new chair
Credit Sean Hurley for NHPR

As Adam departs, Brother Arnold returns to the kitchen for more dinner prep and tells his own story. A self-professed child of the 70's, his interest in communal life brought him here first in 1974. He loved the lifestyle, but -

"I didn't want to be a Shaker.  Because I was perfectly happy being a visitor and enjoying life and everything else with none of the constraints and none of the responsibility."

It was Brother Ted who finally convinced the twenty-something Arnold Hadd that he'd regret not giving the Shaker life a try.

Brother Arnold feeding the sheep.
Credit Sean Hurley

"You know a lot of people think it's celibacy that's the biggest problem but you've already come to an understanding of that before you join. But the real communal nature and being obedient, that's something that seems esoteric when you think about it but it's a very practical and a very real thing when you're here."

Putting the group before himself - not doing what he wanted when he wanted - was not easy.

"And I wasn't all right with that by the way, at first. I was not alright with that. I thought it was stupid. And I tried to argue it out but I found out early on that you don't argue it out. But I still grumbled." 

Adam returns with his prototype: a simple, striking, high backed chair with a weaved taped seat.

"It's a very, very true to the original. He made it a little taller to be more in proportion to taller people than this one was meant for. A slightly higher seat but not much. It's beautiful Adam!
Thank you, it was really fun to work on.
You're welcome. Thank you.  I'm really pleased."

Adam takes notes as Brother Arnold makes small adjustments to the finials and scribe marks. The seat weave should be checkerboard rather than herringbone.  But the changes are small and all agree that Adam's Shaker chairs can begin retailing in the Spring.  For his part, Adam can't quite believe it.

"I get a lot of that 'I'm not worthy' sort of feeling is what it comes down to - like people build Shaker replicas for their life as woodworkers and yet I'm the one that gets to do this." 

Adam's prototype Shaker chair.
Credit Sean Hurley

While the Shakers will be compensated for every chair sold by Chilton's, making money isn't the main reason they agreed to this. 

Because what the Shakers really want - is more Shakers.  

"Is there some hope that other people will come and join?
Oh sure. It's our fervent prayer. Every single day whoever has charge of prayers will make mention of our need for new vocations."

But chairs first. And then, Brother Arnold and Sister Frances and Sister June pray, new Shakers to sit in them.