Typically, people catch glimpses of life in the past by glancing into carefully restored buildings that have become museums. Usually, the glances are from hallways, over restraining ropes, next to signs that say "Don't touch."
But in Enfield, people not only can touch history, they can sleep it, eat it and store their clothes in it.With a corporate partner, the Enfield Shaker Museum has restored the Great Stone Dwelling, a massive, 160-year-old granite structure on Mascoma Lake, as an inn and museum. The inn opened for guests June 6.
The purpose of the renovations is not to modernize the imposing structure. Renovators have been peeling away attempts at modernization from the last seven decades, restoring the building and the features painstakingly built in by the Shakers.
"It's like seeing history come to life again," says Sarah Shaffer, director of the Enfield Shaker Museum.
Guests can hang their jackets and hats on Shaker peg rails that line the walls of every room, or tuck their clothing into the hundreds of trademark drawers built into the walls. In the Shaker dining hall, they can take their meals prepared with herbs grown in the garden right outside.
Completed in 1841, the six-story building, with its 200 windows and towering cupola, was the centerpiece of the Shaker Village that prospered on the lake's western shore from the late 1700s to the 1920s.
"It is just about the most spectacular, most famous of all Shaker buildings ever constructed and was probably their greatest engineering feat," says Don Leavitt, who runs the inn with partner Rick Miller as part of Historic Inns of New England.
"You can imagine in 1841, when everyone lived in little hovels, to come along the lake and see this magnificent structure, how it would have struck you," Leavitt says.
In 1843, it left visitor Giles Avery in awe.
"O! what a stone palace," he wrote in his journal, calling it "one of the most stately, magnificent and solid buildings I ever saw."
About 100 of the village's 300 Shakers lived there.
The Shakers were a Protestant religious order that created 19 communities in America, beginning in 1774, when a handful of "Shaking Quakers" emigrated to escape religious persecution in England.
They believed in celibacy, equality of the sexes and confession of sins, and are known for inventing many labor-saving, practical devices such as the washing machine, clothespin, flat broom and circular saw. They also made simple furniture, reproductions of which fill the inn.
Workers have restored "sleeping chambers" on the second, third and fourth floors. The museum plans exhibits on the fifth and sixth, similar to the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Ky., where guest rooms are interspersed with exhibits.
Over the years, built-in drawers and shutters were removed from some rooms, but rather than covering the spaces, Leavitt says the museum and inn will use them as exhibits.
"We'll have some kind of interpretive description on the wall to describe what was here and what will be coming back, to get the guests involved in the ongoing restoration project," Leavitt says.
Workers have found original sky-blue paint on walls behind the drawers. Others found drawers after pulling linoleum off a wall. And in one large meeting room, pegs in the floor mark where Shakers lined up for their joyous marching and dancing. In fact, they got their name from outsiders who saw the whirling, dancing and trembling forms of worship.
The Shakers sold their Enfield property to an order of Catholic priests and brothers who established a seminary and boys' school in 1927.
In 1985, the property was sold to a developer and the Great Stone Dwelling became an inn. After the developer went bankrupt in 1994, the inn sat idle.
An intense fundraising effort last winter enabled the Enfield Shaker Museum to buy the building and its adjacent chapel. It is leasing the inn to Leavitt and Miller.
Other Shakers lived in Canterbury, about 50 scenic miles away, where their largely intact village is a tourist attraction and educational site.