On Aug. 6, 1920, Shaker Brother Irving Greenwood brought a new Cadillac home to Canterbury Shaker Village. It was a beauty, he wrote in his diary.
The Cadillac arrived 146 years to the day after a poor group of immigrants led by Mother Ann Lee landed in America. The Shakers by then had grown and prospered, with 18 Shaker villages in New England, New York, Ohio and Kentucky.
Though the Shakers embraced a simple farm life, they were not averse to labor-saving devices. In fact, they invented some, including a washing machine.
Irving Greenwood lived at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, N.H., for 53 years until his death in 1939. He recorded in his diary how the Shakers changed and adapted as their number dwindled. He was often the agent of that change.
“The persistent image many have of Brother Irving is a photo that shows him relaxing and listening to his homemade radio, while his beloved dog Dewey (1920-1930), a gift from the Union Village Shakers, rests at his side,” wrote Stephen J. Paterwic in Historical Dictionary of the Shakers.
Irving Greenwood Arrives
Irving Greenwood – Ervin Elmer Greenwood on his birth certificate — was taken to Canterbury Shaker Village, 12 miles north of Concord, N.H., by his grandmother and two Shaker sisters. It was Sept. 18, 1886, and Elmer was a month shy of his 10th birthday. He came from Providence, where his mother had died when he was six years old and his father couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take care of him.
When he arrived, the 94-year-old Canterbury Shaker Village had declined to about 100 members from its peak of 300 in 1850. Women far outnumbered men. The village had 73 females and 28 males, leaving plenty of heavy lifting for men, including Irving Greenwood.
From the time he was 17, Irving Greenwood kept a diary. “Worked at the barn” was his first entry on Feb. 20, 1894. There were many others like it: “Begin sawing wood in dooryard today.” “We boys all help the sisters pick apples in the blacksmith shop field.” “Help shingle.” “Plant corn, beans, peas & beets. Plant squash in the tanning house field upper side.” “Stamp 10 dozen butter boxes with our stamp.”
Hands To Work
The Shakers had a motto: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” They worked hard. Shaker brothers tended the dairy herd and farmed. Shaker sisters made fancy work to sell – sewing, knitting, weaving, baskets and boxes. The Shakers then took the merch to New York and Boston before Christmas, resort hotels in the White Mountains and on the seashore in summer and in Florida and the Carolinas in winter. Today Shaker baskets, boxes and furniture are highly collectible.
The Canterbury Shakers also sold applesauce, butter, maple syrup, herbs and seeds, and published a Shaker periodical.
Their hard work paid off. Canterbury Shaker Village had 3000 acres, a dairy herd, a library, an infirmary and many other buildings, including the largest frame barn in New Hampshire.
Each community was organized into a family that included brothers and sisters and the children for whom they cared. They were celibate, though. They had to replenish their numbers with orphans, foster children and adult converts with their children. “We make you kindly welcome,” was another motto.
Children could leave when they turned 21 — or become a Shaker brother or sister. The Elders decided when an adult convert or child who reached 21 was spiritually ready for that.
Irving Greenwood chose to stay. He learned how to tend a herd of dairy cattle, plow, drive horse teams and run the sawmill.
He was a natural engineer. “In 1910, he wired the village for electricity,” wrote Pateric. “He also built a power plant. Whether it was water pipes or machinery, Brother Irving seemed to be ready with a solution.”
He became a trusted leader of the community as it shrank and adapted to changing times. His diary tells of very old Shakers dying and of young boys leaving. Eventually the Canterbury Shakers had to hire help to work their farm and livestock.
The Shakers Change
Irving Greenwood recorded how the Shakers adapted to the outside world in other ways. Until the turn of the century, they wore plain, handwoven clothing they made themselves. Then the brothers began to buy their clothes and women bought fabric for dresses.
On July 13, 1891, he wrote, “I go to Belmont in the eve. Buy some straw hats for the boys & sneakers for Arthur.”
The sect had originally been called Shakers because of their vigorous dancing during worship (it shook out sin), but they no longer danced by the time Irving Greenwood arrived in 1886.
On Jan. 18, 1895, he wrote in his diary, “Discontinue kneeling after meals.”
That year, a relative of Irving’s friend Henry Hathaway bought a bicycle both Irving and Henry used. In the early 19th century the Shakers would have forbidden a personal recreational item. When they caught on to the bicycle craze, the Shakers made machine-knitted bicycle stockings to sell.
The Shakers did get to have fun. Music was an important part of their lives, and the sisters often put on musical entertainment for the community.
A Shaker friend of Irving Greenwood was named a trustee to handle the community’s business affairs. Sometimes Irving went with him on business trips to New York or Boston and attended the symphony, the opera or the theater. He also went to auto shows.
Irving Greenwood took his first trip in the Cadillac on Sunday, May 4, 1919. He drove his Shaker brothers and sisters in it to doctors’ appointments, on sales trips and buying trips, to concerts in Boston and on errands like buying ice cream.
He bought another Cadillac from the factory in Michigan in 1920 and drove it back to New Hampshire. On Aug. 1, 1920, he reached Cleveland. He washed the car, got lunch and made reservation for a boat ride.
And then he drove to a streetcar suburb called Shaker Heights, just east of Cleveland. Two railroad moguls had built the community on the remains of an old Shaker village. Little was left, save for the ruins of an old gristmill and the mill ponds the Shakers had built.
Irving Greenwood wrote, “Go out to Shaker Heights that used to be North Union. There is nothing to show there was ever a Shaker Village there.”
Irving Greenwood died after suffering a stroke in 1939. The Shaker population of Canterbury had fallen by half. By 1950 it was down to 16. The last Canterbury Shaker died in 1992.
Images: Shaker Heights By Spencer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4434434. This story was updated in 2022. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read Household Tips from Shaker Village, a special for members of the New England Historical Society.