Brother Arnold Hadd leaves the Herb House on Monday at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village beside Route 26 in New Gloucester. Herbs are dried on the top floor during winter. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

NEW GLOUCESTER — The old Shaker village on the shores of Sabbathday Lake, the last active Shaker community in the nation, has been dying for so long that it’s become pretty good at figuring out ways to keep alive for at least a little longer.

Part of the plan to stay alive and relevant is a $4.3 million project getting underway this year to transform a derelict old building into a gleaming educational center intended to provide year-round services to visitors in a building with a working herb production facility.

“It’s time to reclaim our heritage,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the three remaining Shakers in the village beside Route 26.

The idea is to bring Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village “back to its roots” by bolstering its capacity for cultural preservation, social enterprise and programming tied to experiences, as well as fostering alliances with community organizations, Michael Graham, director of the project, said.

It’s a proposal solid enough to have secured a recent $750,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that supporters hope will spur others to donate toward the project they aim to finish in 2024.

Brother Arnold said Monday that there is “something about this place” that called to his soul in the late 1970s and has held him there ever since.

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He hopes the renovated Herb House, erected no later than 1824, will get other people to “come and see” what he long ago came to love about the 1,800-acre farming community that still has 65 sheep, some cattle, 19,000 trees in its orchard and much more.

After all, the only way the village can thrive is if people come. Some of them may even decide to stay.

In its early days, nearly 250 years ago, the Shaker community near the Poland town line numbered more than 140 people who were tied to the land and the Lord, famous for their furniture, brooms and agricultural products.

Now the village is largely known simply for being the last of the 18 significant Shaker communities in the United States to have any honest-to-God, living Shakers.

Brother Arnold Hadd has been a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Glouceter for over 40 years. He spoke Monday about many of the changes he has seen over the years in the community. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Brother Arnold said he doesn’t know what the future will hold, but he hopes it remains bright.

But the many supporters of the community aren’t relying only on hope. They’re also pressing ahead with a plan first developed decades ago to tie the Shaker village and its heritage to a back-to-the-land movement that has fostered everything from farm-to-table businesses to community-supported agriculture.

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The Herb House initially served a bustling community of Shakers who saw the need to erect a large wooden building that could serve a variety of agricultural needs, including the creation of a place to sort and package their wide-ranging business providing herbs for medicine and cooking.

At its height in the 19th century, the Shakers there sold more than 160 different herbs, from aconite leaves to yarrow. It sold large packages of sweet herbs, too, including marjoram, sage and thyme.

With the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which killed off the once-booming patent medicine trade, the Shakers dropped most of the herbs but kept selling popular cooking varieties.

The inside of the Herb House isn’t much to look at today, except for folks who love pawing through old junk. It is full of rusting farm equipment, spindles for furniture that will never be finished, bales of hay and, up in the attic, racks of drying Sweet Annie, an herb that Brother Arnold said is often used to ward off insects.

Old signs are stored in the Herb Barn at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

One of the first elements of the building’s overhaul will be to clean it out, Graham, director of the Shaker museum, library and herb business, said.

Then the structure itself will be carefully catalogued, noting exactly what’s there before changes are made to add an elevator, meeting room, herb production center and more.

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The goal is to make it possible for schoolchildren to come for field trips and for tourists to visit anytime.

After two years of being closed off to the public because of the pandemic, the village plans to begin reopening this summer as conditions and its ability to find help allow.

The way things are now, the village has three members, but it also has a good many people who lend some help. It remains a community that depends on many hands.

Graham said that like much else in Maine, the village relies heavily on tourism, as it has since the heyday of the hotel at Poland Spring.

Graham said tourists are more apt these days to squeeze trips into weekends, making it less likely they’ll bypass Boothbay Harbor or Freeport to eyeball the Shaker village.

“We don’t always make the cut,” he said.

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Brother Arnold Hadd points out the lath and plaster ceiling Monday in the Herb House at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester. The community has received a $750,000 federal humanities grant to renovate the barn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Attracting more Mainers and building more ties to area institutions, from schools to nonprofits, may be the answer to bring more people back to the village, especially after two years of closed doors.

Graham said one of the issues they’ve identified is that “a persistent absence of our neighbors” from nearby areas, many of whom appear to think the village is on life support at best.

“We want to shift into a better relationship,” he said, and plans down the road for classes, a farm-to-table café and more may convince some of them to give the Shakers a chance.

“It’s so much fun to have new people come in and work with us,” said Graham, a Bates College graduate who started working at the village 32 years ago.

Maybe somewhere among them will be someone like Brother Arnold, who started visiting the community in 1975 and kept returning.

“I met strangers who felt like family,” he said. Then one August night in 1977, after a small, kerosene-lit service in a meeting room, he realized he belonged there for the long haul.

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“It just seemed like the very heaven had decided to join us,” Brother Arnold said. And the next morning, he signed on, a move he said he hasn’t doubted in years.

Brother Arnold Hadd comes down Monday from the top floor of the Herb House at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester. The top floor is where herbs are dried over the winter. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

For Brother Arnold, it’s been “a life of humility, sacrifice and faith.” The celibate, godly life is not for everyone, he readily admits, and some who have tried wound up leaving.

But he said he’s not ready to see the village fade away and become a museum like other American Shaker villages.

“I hope it will always still be a community,” he said.

First, though, is raising the money to kickstart the project that might make it possible.

Graham said the village has collected more than $800,000 for the project in addition to the federal grant. It’s going to be beating the bushes for more, he said, but avoiding traditional methods that don’t quite align with the religious tenets of the Shakers.

In whatever they do, he said, they have to be “a caring community” that treats everyone with respect.

For more information, including how to donate, see maineshakers.com.


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