Most of the time, the 1848 Shaker Meeting House in the Town of Colonie near the Albany International Airport seems like a hallowed place, a perfect example of that religious group’s architecture that also offers a revealing glimpse into its historic past.
This time of year, however, the large rectangular building is transformed into a mecca for Capital Region shoppers looking for Christmas gift items. The Shaker Christmas Craft Fair, specializing in hand-crafted items, will be up and running through Dec. 17.
“We have well over 50 crafters with a wide variety of handmade items,” said Starlyn D’Angelo, executive director of the Shaker Heritage Society, which oversees the site. “We’re very careful to make sure every item there has some handmade component to it, from a pottery basket to hand-blown glass to jewelry. We also have local food products such as maple syrup and spice mixes. It’s a pretty diverse group of items.”
The Shaker Christmas Craft Fair serves as the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Of the total proceeds, 70 percent go back to the vendors and 30 percent remains with the Shaker Heritage Society.
“We’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and from what I’ve been told it has certainly grown,” said D’Angelo. “It started out with a couple of tables in the hallway, but people enjoyed it so much it just kept on growing.”
The prospect of such a commercial venture in what was their primary religious and social meeting place wouldn’t have been a problem for the Shakers, D’Angelo said.
“The Shakers were not sentimental about material things,” she said. “They actually used the meeting house as a broom-making workshop for a while. We don’t feel like we’re violating any kind of sacred house or site. I’m sure they would have been OK with it.”
Along with D’Angelo, the Shaker Heritage Society has one other full-time employee and two part-time workers. Much of the staff working the Christmas Craft Fair are volunteers.
Typically, the Shaker site is open throughout the year Tuesday through Saturday from February through October. In November and the first two weeks of December it remains open from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The site closes on Dec. 17, the final day of the craft fair, and remains closed until Feb. 1.
“We might occasionally have an event on Sunday, but we’re mindful of the Shakers and how Sunday was a day of worship for them,” said D’Angelo, explaining why the site is closed one day during the week. “We also don’t have the resources to stay open seven days a week. We have wonderful volunteers, about 50 of them, but we don’t have the staff to stay open all the time.”
Part of the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District, the site has nine historical buildings open to the public, although much of the activity is in the 1848 Meeting House and the 1916 barn. The Shakers were first formed late in the 18th century, growing out of both the Quaker and Wardley Society traditions. Ann Lee is credited with creating the first Shaker settlement in 1776, at the Albany Airport location, when she and her followers leased 700 acres of land from the Van Rensselaer Manor west of Albany.
The group, which practiced celibacy, began building a reputation for cleanliness, honesty, tolerance and hard work, and reached its heights just prior to the Civil War.
There were as many as 300 people living at the Albany airport site, originally called Wisdom’s Valley, and there were more than 20 Shaker communities spread throughout the eastern half of the country, as far south as Florida and as far west as Indiana.
But by the first decade of the 20th century, things were changing. The Albany site was experiencing difficulty maintaining all of its properties and buildings, and in 1926 Albany County purchased the land and everything on it. In 1977, the Shaker Heritage Society was formed and the group quickly began giving tours and offering educational programs.
The Shaker way of life today is nearly nonexistent. There is only one community left, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. It consists of just five people.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.