Sodus Bay and Groveland Shaker Life In Western New York
by John H. Martin
The Shaker religion has fascinated Americans ever since its inception in the late 1700s, one of the longest surviving of the "new religions" which were to develop in the United States. It spread at its zenith by establishing communities from Maine through New England to New York to Ohio and to Kentucky. In New York State in the "Burned-Over District" of central New York, a Shaker community was begun in 1826 at Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario, a community which would relocate to Groveland to the south of the Finger Lakes area after a few years.
The Shaker faith had its incipient beginnings in England in the mid-1700s, but it was Ann Lee, born in 1736, who was to found the ongoing faith in America once she left England. Ann Lee came from an impoverished background, she never learned to read or write, and she was forced to work at menial tasks all of her life. She married unhappily and had four children all of whom died young. Open to "heavenly visions" which brought her new truths, she came to abhor "the depravity of human nature and the odiousness of sin," particularly the act of sexual relations. These concepts from her occult occasions became imbued in her mind and were to influence the years of her adult life. In 1758 she was converted by James and Jane Wardley, Quakers, who were the followers of a small group of French religionists who had taken refuge in England from persecution in France due to their beliefs. These French peasants claimed to have been inspired in their native land by the Holy Ghost, and they wished to return to the forms of primitive Christianity as they viewed that early faith. In their religiosity they were subject to trembling, fainting, trances, and given to visions and prophecies. They looked forward to the imminent Millennium, and they had gifts of speaking in tongues and of healing. Relentlessly persecuted by the French Church and government, their survivors in England had few followers.
James and Jane Wardley, although Quakers, came under the influence of the ideas of these French refugees. They, too, felt the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and this was manifested in their worship services by a form of ritual dancing. They were therefore referred to derogatively as "the Shaking Quakers" or "Shakers." Ann Lee became a member of the Wardleys' small group, and , when in her trances she realized fully the root of human depravity, she began to preach on the subject of "the causes of man's fall from grace." As a too active dissident from the Church of England, she was jailed in 1770 and on other occasions as well because of her outspoken religious beliefs. Finally, in 1774 she and her husband, a brother, a niece, and a flock of eight followers sailed for New York to free themselves from English persecution. In New York City the group split, some members heading up the Hudson River valley to Niskayuna (Watervliet today) just outside of Albany where they purchased land through the funds supplied by one of their wealthier members. Ann Lee remained in New York City, once more working at menial tasks. In the New World her husband deserted her for another woman, and Ann eventually followed her colleagues to Niskayuna where they had prepared a refuge for her and for themselves in which they could follow their own faith.
On the edge of what was still frontier country her group was free to pursue their own religious ways, but here, on the verge of a wilderness, in a five year period they enticed no new converts to their beliefs. Then in 1779 in New Lebanon, southeast of Niskayuna and closer to the New York State and Massachusetts border, a New Light Baptist revival took place. Some of those converted at this revival found no satisfaction with the New Light Baptists' approach to religion, and they made a visit to Mother Ann, as she was known in her group at Niskayuna. The doctrines espoused by Mother Ann proved more satisfying than those of the New Light Baptists, and new members soon joined the Niskayuna group. With the additional followers, in the 1780-1784 period Ann and her new converts began proselytizing towns in New England, and they were able to found small colonies in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1784 Ann Lee died, leaving a doctrine to her followers of frugality, chastity, industry, humility, and temperance. These were precious virtues, but they did not constitute a theology nor an organized pattern for a religious following.
Fortunately, in 1787 two natural leaders arose out of Mother Ann's small group, Elder Joseph Meachum and Eldress Lucy Wright, and they were able to organize and systematize Mother Ann's teachings into a way of life for a celibate religious society which was to grow and to flourish. As Shaker theology developed, God was seen as having a dual personality which encompassed both the masculine and feminine aspects of being. In Jesus, the masculine side had been made incarnate, and in the fullness of time the female aspect of the divine would also become incarnate—as had occurred in the person of Mother Ann. As with many groups touched by the revivalism of the age, the Biblical books of Prophecy and Revelation were the foundation of their beliefs, to which was added their abhorrence of "carnal sin"—and thus the doctrine of celibacy became a cornerstone of their faith. In this life, they felt, there was the need to perfect oneself, and this was the goal for Shaker members who would work for the ultimate salvation of their own souls and for all other souls as well. In the developing Shaker villages, individual "Families" were established of celibate men and women in separate quarters where they worked to support their existence, each "Family" having its own dwelling house from which the combined members could farm and could work at the hand industries which supported their endeavors.
A surge of religious revivals in Ohio and Kentucky soon proved fertile ground for the spread of Shakerism beyond the New England and eastern New York State areas. A Shaker community had been founded in Lebanon, Ohio, and then one in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Among the early converts to the Ohio Shakers was Richard Pelham who joined the Shaker's Union Village in Lebanon, Ohio, and he was to become a leader of that community. In 1824 he returned to New York State to visit his brother Joseph in the Lyons, New York, area, and he talked his brother into visiting Union Village to see the new life which one could experience as a Shaker. Joseph Pelham was not only intrigued by the life he saw at Union Village, but he, and then his wife, converted to the faith. Born in 1792 and married in 1813, Joseph and his wife Susanna now became convinced that the Shaker way of life was the only true calling, and thus they petitioned the Shaker Central Ministry at New Lebanon, New York, for the creation of a celibate Shaker community in western New York with Joseph as its leader and with their support.
The Central Ministry sent a delegation to survey the situation, and they found the rich farmland and the cover of timber in the Sodus Bay area at Lake Ontario such as could support a new community. A community at Sodus Bay offered another benefit, for it could serve as a way-station for those Shakers who traveled on religious business to the Shaker communities in Ohio and Kentucky. Therefor private funds were solicited and money was borrowed from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Shaker units to purchase 1,331 acres of land for $12,600. Four Shaker "Families" and a leader were sent from the New Lebanon Ministry to Sodus Bay to create the new community. When the new Shaker Sodus Bay unit was organized in March of 1826, it numbered seventy-two members, growing over the next nine years to one hundred and fifty members. It would be the last, long-lived Shaker community established, existing until 1892 when it was dissolved.
The land which was purchased held several farm houses, a grist mill, and barns, and the new group thus had a basis for the establishment of a Shaker village. A meeting house arose in 1830-31 and then a large dwelling house for the first "Family" in 1833-35. What seemed a successful and prosperous establishment with thirteen houses and ten barns would be threatened by the internal improvements which New York State was pursuing in order to serve the farms and nascent industries of western New York. In 1836 the State proposed the creation of the Sodus Canal Company, and, with the State's right of eminent domain, it seemed that the canal would go right through the Shaker lands. The community therefore decided to sell its land in November of 1836, and 1,692 acres of farmland were purchased in Groveland, New York, fifty miles to the southeast, for $55 an acre. Over the next twenty-four months all the members, the community's property and livestock, and even the bodies of its deceased members were moved across New York State to their new home. The move was not an easy one, for the housing in Groveland at first consisted of log cabins and one farm house, but by June 1838 the relocation had been completed.
Building at the new site progressed fairly quickly: in 1837 the Ministry Shop was built, followed by a log broom-shop for an incipient industry. A two-story East Family Office arose in 1839 (now removed to the Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, New York, southwest of Rochester), and the three-story Meeting House was finished in 1842, lasting until destroyed by fire in 1947. This was painted a light blue,and thus the new Meeting House differed from the traditional white religious "gathering" buildings of New England Shaker tradition. Tradition was ignored once more when the East Family House was built in 1858 since Victorian tastes began to affect the simplicity of Shaker architecture. This four-story building reflected the Italianate style popular in the later 1800s, and its was graced with a hipped roof and a cupola "Lookout." (The structure still stands today as part of the New York State penal "Groveland Correctional Institute," but a 1988 fire destroyed the cupola and the interior of the fourth floor.) The East Family House was a substantial building being fifty-one feet wide by ninety-seven feet long. Unlike Shaker dwelling houses, such as at Hancock Village in Massachusetts, its kitchen and dining room consisted of a one-story brick structure some fifteen feet behind the main house, no doubt unattached for safety reasons to separate the cooking fires from the residential unit. A smaller West Family House at twenty-five feet by fifty-five feet was next erected.
The twenty years after the move to Groveland in 1836 marked the hey-day of the community, grist and saw mills, and a blacksmith's shop among other units being added to the farming basis of the community. In 1841 the Genesee Valley Canal reached the Shaker lands, thereby giving a connection for the shipping of their popular products of brooms and bonnets and farm produce to Rochester, to Olean, and even to the Alleghany River in Pennsylvania and thus to the Ohio River. The railroad next appeared, providing a connection to Albany and to the Mother Ministry at New Lebanon in eastern New York, the Ministry to which Groveland was responsible.
As the United States became more industrialized and worldly, the affect was felt in Groveland as well. Between 1855 and 1870 the membership of the community declined precipitously by some 60% since the world was becoming too much for this Shaker group. One Shaker brother took up Orson Fowler's phrenology, but he was forced to leave Groveland for having examined the heads of some of the younger sisters in the community, young women whom he had warned not to tell the Eldress of his actions. One sister in 1871 took the new "water-cure" in nearby Dansville, and she shocked the community by wearing the new Bloomer outfit which was also considered outrageous in many parts of the non-Shaker world. Lucius Southwick had been a trustee of the village since 1838, but in 1862 he fell in love with Sister Sarah Sizer, and the two departed the community to marry, leaving under a cloud as to the Trustee's financial manipulations of community funds.
Other elopements were to occur, and there was almost a daily flux in the membership as individuals came and went. While a good portion of Groveland consisted of children, few of these on reaching maturity remained within the community. Statistics indicate the continuing decline: 148 members in 1836, 130 in 1857, 57 in 1874, 41 in 1880, and 37 in 1892. As membership declined, outside labor had to be hired. Defection was not the only burden, for financial management frequently went awry. Land was added to the community's holding imprudently, and the honesty of the leadership was questionable at times.
Nature and circumstance played its part in undermining Groveland: overly wet or overly dry weather damaged crops and thereby income; floods, sometimes occasioned by the overflowing of the Genesee Canal, took out eighty acres of crops and the saw mill in 1863, while disastrous fires in 1841,1859, 1868, 1871, and 1875 added to the community's woes. The 1871 fire took out seven buildings in one night while that in 1875 destroyed the grist and flour mill when the community had no fire insurance to cover the $35,000 loss. By 1887 Groveland had $3,525 in assets and a debt of $15,900. With only 34 members left, the over-all debt and the inability of the few to pay and to labor had undermined the community. The decision to close Groveland had to be made, and the land and buildings were sold to New York State for use as the Craig Colony for Epileptics for $125,000. On October 12, 1892 the cows were shipped by rail and then on October 18th the furniture and all equipment went to the community at Watervliet (Niskayuna) as did the few remaining members of Groveland. In 1926 even the Watervliet Shakers were faced with the decline in its membership and they then sold some of their property and furniture and equipment to the New York State Museum in Albany, including items from Groveland along with documentation of the movement.
What were the reasons for the lack of success for the Sodus Bay - Groveland communities? Sodus Bay, of course, was closed and moved to Groveland by the threat of a canal bisecting the property and thereby making their use of the land inconvenient. Groveland, on the other hand, suffered from a number of problems. To begin with, it was located in an out-of-the-way area from which few converts could be made, the southern and western portion of New York State not being the thoroughfare through which the westward movement and settlement of the population was to occur prior to 1860. It had to compete as well with the revival movements which swept over the Burned-Over District to the north and which had a greater appeal than did a community based on celibacy—as can be seen by the desertion of Groveland's young people and the elopements which took place. Then, too, there was sheer mismanagement of the community's assets which placed an ever increasing burden on the backs of the few able-bodied members of Groveland who did remain within the community. In general, the decline of the community was also the result of the new economy which grew after the Civil War with the concomitant growth of American cities offering employment which no longer made the individual as dependent upon communities such as had evolved in Shaker villages.
It is ironic that the Groveland Shakers sold their land to New York State at a discount from the original $150,000 they had set for the sale of the property, a discount since the State was to use the place for charitable purposes. In 1986 the Craig Colony institution was closed, and the Groveland property was transferred to the New York State Department of Corrections. Today the one-time Shaker community is a maximum security prison surrounded by fences, barbed wire, observation towers, and flood lights. Of the original Shaker site at Sodus Bay, three buildings still stand on the private Alasa Farms, including a dwelling house and the Deacon House. At Groveland (the area is now known by its original Indian name of Sonyea) five buildings remain, three within the confines of the prison grounds, two outside the prison off New York State Route 36, and one which has been moved to the Genesee Country Village at Mumford, New York. Behind the fences and barbed wire of the prison, the 1858 four story East Family House remains, albeit its cupola and its fourth floor interior were ruined by a 1988 fire.