UNDERSTAND THE SHAKER SITE The Church Family site, where the Society's offices are located, is the heart of the 770 acre Watervliet National Shaker Historic District in Albany, NY.

The property includes nine remaining Shaker buildings, herb garden, open fields, apple orchard, Ann Lee Pond nature preserve, and the Shaker cemetery where founder, Ann Lee is buried. Visitors are welcome to picnic, hike, enjoy a concert or workshop or just to relax and experience the atmosphere of this special place.

Collection of 3D models of the extant buildings in the Church Family. Available to download from Google 3D Warehouse.

The original occupation of the site by the Shakers began in 1775 when John Hocknell leased two hundred acres of land. There Ann Lee and a band of followers began to change the swampy land into a farm that eventually grew into four economically separate "families": the Church, North, West and South families.

Limits of the Church Family site and location of the Shaker Heritage Society.

Overlay on Google Earth

The Shaker concept of "family" consisted of a group of unrelated people who lived and worked together in spiritual harmony. The South Family was the home of the Children's Order where many orphans were raised by the Shakers.

Today only the Church Family site is open to the public.

Boundaries of the National Historic District and original location of the Shaker families in the Watervliet community.

Overlay on Google Earth

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WATERVLIET The Shaker site served as a model for many 19th century religious and social experiments.

The Watervliet site is significant for numerous reasons. The garden seed industry, flat broom and vacuum sealed tin cans were invented by Watervliet Shakers. Shakers developed innovative planned communities that emphasized gender and racial equality. Historical incidents at Watervliet led to many changes in New York State laws governing divorce, child custody and property ownership and recent research has proven that the community was engaged in sheltering fugitive slaves.

The North Family in the 1920s, after the Shakers left and before all the buildings were demolished.

New York State Museum

The landscape of the Historic District includes distinctive natural and cultural resources. Historically, the Shakers divided the area into four economically and geographically distinct "family" groupings. Of these, two are privately owned and one is no longer extant.

Original location of the four Shaker families in the Watervliet Shaker Community.

Overlay on Google Maps

The Society's primary interest is in the fourth grouping known as the "Church Family", which is publicly accessible and includes nine historic structures, an important Shaker cemetery (where Shaker founder, Ann Lee is buried), and the ruins of a gristmill.

Three demolished buildings from the Church Family: 1783 Second Dwelling House, 1838 Sisters' Workshop, and the 1816 Dwelling House.

Library of the Congress

Despite heavy commercial development within the Historic District, the landscape retains much of its original rural character including an apple orchard, herb garden and open pastureland. The property also encompasses portions of Shaker Creek and the Ann Lee Pond Nature Preserve.

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.

THE SHAKERS AT NISKAYUNA By 1776, Ann Lee and her followers leased a 700 acre parcel of land in the Van Rensselaer Manor West of Albany.

That year the Shakers moved to the property and began the difficult task of turning swamp land and sandy dunes into productive property. Ann's brother William, worked as a blacksmith while other members of the religious group found work as weavers and shoemakers in Albany. From the beginning, the group lived communally in a log cabin and focused efforts on creating a successful farm.

Albany natives were suspicious of the activities of this strange group of people, derisively referred to as "Shaking Quakers" or simply "Shakers." However, a group of New Light Baptists in New Lebanon, New York became increasingly involved in Ann Lee's vision to create a utopian communal religious society.

Shaker hats and bonnets hanging on pegs.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885

While driving sheep from New Lebanon to the Albany Shakers, a Shaker brother was jailed on suspicion of supporting the enemy British troops. The local people were perplexed and frightened by the group of British immigrants who lived under the leadership of a woman. Ann Lee was thought to be a witch or a British spy. She soon found herself in jail for attempting to dissuade others from taking up arms in defense of liberty.

Lee's followers began a tradition of successfully petitioning the State to support their cause and Governor George Clinton released her from jail. Soon afterward, Lee embarked on a missionary journey throughout the Northeast. Areas where she found sympathetic believers often became the site of a new Shaker community but the journey was long and harsh. Travel and frequent beatings took a toll on Lee and her brother, William, both of whom died at the Watervliet site in 1784.

Separation of sexes during the meals in the North Family dining room.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885

After Lee's death, a former Baptist minister named Joseph Meecham established the complex system of Shaker communities comprised of economically separate family groupings led by pairs of male and female leaders who reported to a central ministry based at Mt. Lebanon and Watervliet. The effect was a new and controversial concept of "family." Known initially as Niskayuna Shakers, the community gradually established four families including the Church Family, where the most experienced and devout Shakers lived, the North family, which manufactured goods for sale on the Erie Canal, the West Family, which grew a wide variety of vegetable crops, and the South Family gathering order where children and new converts lived.

Hired workers picking beans circa 1880s.

Shaker Heritage Society

At its peak in the 1850s, there were approximately 230 shakers at the Watervliet site and 6,000 Shakers nationwide.

Top image: New York State Museum.

COMMUNITY AND INDUSTRIES This was the site where the Shakers first developed their famous garden seed industry.

Eventually, the legal boundaries of the Town of Niskayuna changed and the site of this first Shaker community became known as Watervliet. Today, the property is located within the Town of Colonie. Quality control, standardization of seed size and the innovative packaging of seeds (still used today) quickly led to a widely known reputation for excellence in farming operations. The Shaker flat broom, several modified agricultural tools and vacuum sealed tin cans were all invented at the Watervliet site.

Shakers regarded their daily tasks as an offering to God. Cleanliness, honesty, tolerance and hard work were an important aspect of their culture dating back to Ann Lee. This, in combination with a communal living arrangement, provided ample opportunity for honing their many technological innovations and efficient patterns of daily living.

Shaker women organizing laundry.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885

The Watervliet Shakers quickly became a source of inspiration for people in the outside world. Many curious visitors came to see for themselves why the Shakers were so successful. Religious leaders from Robert Owen to John Humphrey Noyes visited the Watervliet Shakers, Governors, Senators, celebrities and military leaders also satiated their curiosity by attending worship services.

A period of intense spiritual revival started at the Watervliet South Family in 1826 and spread to all of the other Shaker communities. The famous Shaker "gift" or "spirit" drawings were created during this period. Each community also designated special spiritual "fountains" or sacred sites. The Watervliet community identified more sacred sites than any other community.

Shakers during religious services in the Meeting House.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885

By the mid-1800s the Shakers were internationally known for their neat, efficient communities and their unusual religious beliefs. The increasing numbers of non-Shakers wishing to see Shaker religious services led to the need for a new Meeting House.

Visitors flocked to witness religious services in Watervliet, circa 1870s.

New York State Museum

The new 1848 Shaker Meeting House exemplifies the interaction between the Shakers and the outside world. Worldly people entered the building at the South gable end to access rising seats built into the structure of the building specifically for spectators. Beyond the rising seats, a large, open dance floor provided sufficient space for the members of the Shaker community to engage in spiritual song and dance. More than a few of the spectators eventually joined the Shakers but many more saw the Shakers as a must see curiosity.

The demolished 1791 Meeting House and the extant 1848 Meeting House, circa 1920s.

Library of the Congress

Non-Shaker residents continued to be perplexed by the Shakers. Some saw them as a threat to the "natural" family order. Shakers openly treated black people as equals in their communities. There is strong evidence that the Watervliet Shakers also sheltered fugitive slaves and helped them flee to Canada. This, along with the equal authority of women in their communities was not kindly regarded by many of their neighbors.

Top image: New York State Museum.

Shakers in the bridge near the 1856 Drying House, circa 1880s.

THE LATER DAYS AND TODAY By the early 20th century, the Watervliet community experienced difficulty maintaining all of its properties and buildings within each family grouping.

The Watervliet Shakers shipped a wide variety of goods to the mid-west via the Erie Canal and engaged in hundreds of business enterprises. As government run orphanages became established and work opportunities increased, fewer people were drawn to the Shakers. A general decrease of interest in religion and spirituality also limited the numbers of new converts.

The main entrance of the Church Family after the Shakers left in the 1920s.

Library of the Congress

Arson led to the destruction of the North Family buildings and Albany County purchased the Church Family property for use as a nursing home and a sanatorium and preventorium for tuberculosis patents. The Town of Colonie and Albany County used a portion of the Church family agricultural fields to create the first municipal airport in the nation.

Albany County continues to own the site of the Church family. Nine Shaker buildings and the ruins of a Shaker grist mill remain on site and provide excellent examples of Shaker architectural forms. The 1848 Meeting house is particularly significant since few examples of this type of architecture exist and no other large scale Shaker Meeting House retains original interior features.

The historical main entrance of the Church Family today.

The importance of the Watervliet site can not be overstated. It influenced American history in the areas of religious development, the history of technology and agriculture, women's role in society, decorative arts and design, African American history and legal history. Today, the site retains much of its rural character and historic landscape despite heavy development in the surrounding area.

The orchard with several apple trees planted by the Shakers.

The area of historic significance includes the Ann Lee Pond Nature Preserve and bike paths that connect to trails along the Mohawk River. Located adjacent to Albany International Airport and several major transportation corridors, the site is an important and unique gateway to the Capital District and the Adirondack region. Shaker Heritage Society is currently working in partnership with Albany County, the Albany County Airport Authority and the Town of Colonie to develop a mixed use cultural park at the site that will provide cultural, recreational and educational program opportunities while stimulating tourism and economic development within the region.

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.