For many years during the 19th century, the simple, self-sufficient Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, mingled happily with the luxury-loving guests and the owners of the Poland Spring Hotel.
It must have been the water.
Both the Shakers and the hotel owners, generations of the Ricker family, believed Poland Spring Water had medicinal qualities.
The Shakers and the Rickers enjoyed a symbiotic relationship from the very beginning. An 18th century land swap with the Shakers put the Rickers into the hotel business, and the Shakers became a tourist attraction. The Shakers, for their part, found the Poland Spring Hotel to be a lucrative market for their fancy goods and produce.
The Shaker sect, formally known as the The United Society of Believers, was founded by Ann Lee in Manchester, England, in 1847. They were a breakaway sect of Quakers known as the “Shaking Quakers” because of their ecstatic dancing during Sunday meeting.
After Ann Lee – known as “Mother Ann” — was imprisoned for her beliefs, she came to America with eight followers in 1774. They settled in upstate New York, preaching their doctrine of celibacy, self-sufficiency, pacifism, communal living and equality between the sexes.
The Shakers expanded to 19 utopian communities throughout the Northeast and Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Georgia and Florida. They established three in Maine in the 1780s, in Alfred, Gorham and Sabbathday Lake near New Gloucester and Poland.
Sabbathday Lake, formally organized on April 19, 1794, was known as the “least of Mother’s children in the East.” It ranked as the smallest and poorest of the Shaker communities.
‘You shall pay’
In the 1780s, a group of Shakers moved to Alfred, Maine, where Jabez Ricker owned property that contained the only millstream near the Shaker community. The Shakers pressured him to give up the land. The story goes that a Shaker elder told him, “Jabez Ricker, God says you must give the Shakers your farm.”
Jabez Ricker was filled with the fear of God. “Well, if God says so it must be so,” he said. Then, with a little more spirit, he added, “But you shall pay me for it.”
The Shakers gave Jabez Ricker a farm they owned near their Sabbathday Lake village. The site turned out to be on a main thoroughfare to Portland. Jabez Ricker in 1797 opened the Wentworth Ricker Inn to farmers and tradesmen who traveled along the road, beginning a long family interest in the hospitality business.
By the 1840s, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers had carved a large enterprise out of the Maine forests. They owned 1,900 acres with 26 large buildings, including a meetinghouse, a blacksmith shop and a large dwelling house. That decade was the peak for the Shakers, with 6,000 members throughout the United States. Their belief in celibacy would doom them to slow, near extinction.
The 1840s were not so good for the Rickers. The railroads were siphoning off hotel visitors to the seashore. Then one day in 1844, Jabez Ricker’s grandson Hiram went to work in his fields near a spring. For 10 days he drank water from the spring, which cured his chronic dyspepsia. By 1859, the Rickers were selling Poland Spring Water. By 1876, they built the Poland Spring House, which became a popular resort with more than 350 rooms.
The hotel was exclusive, but the Shakers were allowed on the grounds. They became friendly with some of the hotel’s prominent guests, including Gen. Benjamin Butler and Maine politician James G. Blaine.
They also became a tourist attraction. As many as 300 hotel visitors would come to watch their Sunday meetings. The Shakers sang for the guests, but only after the hotel’s musicians gave them lessons.
Fancy Goods by the Shakers
The Shakers also found a lucrative market at the hotel for their fancy goods. The Shaker sisters made four sales calls on the hotel every week. Hotel guests eagerly bought their rugs, brushes, fir balsam pillows, poplarware, sugared peel, maple candy, lemon syrup, Shaker dolls, sewing carriers and cloaks. They sold so many flowers they had to build a greenhouse.
In the 1890s, the Shakers began to sell the Rickers cream, potatoes, apples, pears and firewood. In 1898, the Shakers struck a deal to furnish crates for Poland Springs bottled water.
Shakers were invited to the hotel’s special events. In 1895, Sister Aurelia Mace attended a lecture by Booker T. Washington and the dedication of the Maine State Building, which the Rickers had moved from Chicago where it had been built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Sister Aurelia Mace was a favorite of the Rickers. She was featured in the weekly magazine for hotel guests:
One of the best known faces to be seen at the Poland Spring House is undoubtedly that of Sister Aurelia. Her sweet and kindly face seems to give assurance of all that is hospitable and gentle in human composition and looks out from the simple bonnet or cap, beaming with absolute good nature.
For her part, Sister Aurelia admired the Rickers. She wrote in her diary in 1895,
In the service of the Society, I have been at the Poland Spring House many time during the past ten years. I have received great kindness and consideration … I have taken note of the grandeur and beautiful life that fortune bestows upon her favored ones.
She wrote that she never heard a coarse expression, nor profane word in that house. As a result, she had
…great respect for the noble class of people that I have met there and it has been with great joy that I have received many favors on behalf of my people.
Sister Aurelia died in 1910 at the age of 75. The Rickers sold the hotel in 1940. Shakers continued to sell fancy goods to the hotel guests until the 1950s.
Today, there are three Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, the last remaining Shaker community. Poland Spring water is a subsidiary of Nestle. The Poland Spring Hotel is still in operation.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village By Jamie Ribisi-Braley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35399926