White Water Shakers

This rural northwest corner of Hamilton County, Ohio, is dotted with old farms, a few gentle hills left behind by the last glaciers and the occasional general store that sells necessities, sandwiches and beer.

A blanket chest (probably from the South Union community).

A blanket chest (probably from the South Union community).

But driving north on Oxford Road reveals something else almost untouched by the last 100 years. Brick buildings with an arresting symmetry, simplicity and distinctive shape are clustered on both sides of the road.

They don’t appear abandoned or derelict, but it’s also clear that no one lives in them. They appear, for lack of better expression, to be waiting for something.

And that is exactly the case.

Approximately 20 intact structures are the remains of the White Water community of Shakers, which was active between 1824 and 1916 and encompassed more than 1,400 acres at its peak. Unlike the restored Shaker communities of Hancock in Massachusetts or Pleasant Hill outside nearby Harrodsburg, Ky., White Water is in the beginning stages of its restoration into a place the public can visit and enjoy.

Owned by the Hamilton Country Park District and leased to the Friends of the White Water Shaker Village, an all-volunteer staff of craftsmen and researchers are now restoring a brick dwelling and the meeting house of the community that are known as the “North Family” village.

The stairwell of the dwelling. One stairwell is for the women; the other is for the men.

The stairwell of the dwelling. One stairwell is for the women; the other is for the men.

Right now, volunteers are erasing most of changes that were wrought to these two buildings since they were sold by the Shakers in 1916 as the population of the community dwindled. The meeting house, built in 1827, is marked by its twin entrances and exits – one for men and one for women.

The first floor is essentially one open room intended for the dancing and singing that typified the Shakers’ services. The room is uninterrupted by support posts thanks to its ingenious timber framing in the attic. The previous owners stripped out most of the frame-and-panel wainscoting and cut an access hole into the second floor for the convenience of moving (of all things) a hot tub and pin ball machines.

James Innis, the vice president of the Friends of the White Water Shaker Village, says that the first floor was used for storage after the Shakers left, including hay and feed. And he says that the children of the building’s residents would ride their bicycles in the cavernous space when the weather outside was nasty.

And now the volunteers are pushing the clock backwards. Most of the building’s electrical outlets have been removed. Modern walls have been torn down. Old sash windows and doors have been recovered. And volunteer woodworkers are patching the floor and rebuilding the wainscoting in the room.

The original wainscotting in the Meeting House at White Water.

The original wainscotting in the Meeting House at White Water.

Despite all the changes made by the non-Shaker owners, the marks left by this religious group are indelible. The passageway doors throughout the two buildings are exquisite. They are thin (between 1”- and 1-1/8” thick) and feature perfect through-tenons, raised panels and excellent proportions.

The newel posts on the stairs are exquisitely shaped, with perfect 19th-century style stopped-chamfers. The handrails are embedded in the plaster, as are the peg-rails, which are in almost every room – sometimes in two rows.

The pegs are distinctive (we examined about 100 of them) with a strong rounded base and a delicate mushroom top.

While the main room of the meeting house is the most impressive, there are other nooks and crannies of the two buildings that also induce wonder.

Take the dining room. It’s in the basement of the dwelling. Yes, the White Water Shaker community would take its meals in the basement of this brick building. At present the room looks much like any basement: dark and grim. But if you read the historical accounts of the room and can strip away some of the modern changes, the room could be glorious.

The front of the Meeting House at White Water. Again, one door for each gender.

The front of the Meeting House at White Water. Again, one door for each gender.

Visitors report the floor was polished wood. The room is ringed with windows – some of which are now covered up by added-on porches at the front and rear. But the most charming aspect of the entire room is a rough hole in the ceiling, which is ringed with painted wood.

This hole extends all the way up to the roof of the building where there is a bell tower. A rope dropped all the way from the tower to the ceiling so that when dinner was ready the Shakers could call the brethren in from the fields to eat.

About the Woodwork
Though White Water was not a furniture-building community like other Shaker villages, the community displays many awe-inspiring touches of craftsmanship throughout the buildings.

Many of the walls still feature paneled woodwork with an elegant bead detail. The doors, as mentioned before, are exquisite. And the closets are marked by hand-mortised peg rails that still display the layout lines and pitch-perfect craftsmanship of the Shakers.

A view of the Meeting House from the attic window of the dwelling.

A view of the Meeting House from the attic window of the dwelling.

The timbers used in constructing everything in the two buildings are definitely local. Walnut, poplar, oak and sycamore are everywhere throughout the two buildings.

And though furniture wasn’t one of the industries of the White Water Shakers, they did make furniture for the community’s own use, so  there was a lot of woodworking going on in the village. The population numbered 250 Shakers at its peak in 1850.  One of the major industries at White Water was broom making. The broom shop is still standing (though it’s listing backward from the road). The broomhandles were turned on lathes, and the presence of lathes near the river is reported by one visitor’s period account.

Innis found one of the community’s completed broom handles in an attic area in the dwelling building. He saved the handle and showed it around to visitors last week. The shaft was perfectly round and exhibited marks where the bristles were sewn on. The handle tapered up where the user would grasp the handle and then swelled at its end, like an 18th-century hammer handle. The swelling helps the user hold fast to the handle.

In addition to the trim of the buildings, its modern protectors also have several examples of furniture from the community under lock and key. There are about a dozen chairs, an end table, a few case pieces and a seed box that still has a deteriorated label from the community. Seeds were one of the major industries of the White Water Shakers, as was the production and weaving of silk.

The Future of White Water

A group of pegboards waiting to be rehung.

A group of pegboards waiting to be rehung.

The two volunteers who showed us around White Water in May 2009 have been pouring countless hours into the restoration project, but the real goal is years away.

“I hope to enjoy the restoration while I’m still alive,” Innis says with a small smile.

The first goal is to get enough money (one estimate is $440,000) to get a parking lot and driveway built and to convert one of the barns into a visitor’s center. That way the people who came to see the village could also see the work on the buildings as it progressed.

Plus they could see the other buildings in their unrestored (but remarkably preserved) state. The chicken coop is exactly as it was left. There’s even old straw left in the nesting boxes for the birds. The smokehouse still has blacksmith-made S-hooks for hanging meats.

But the worry among everyone in the Friends of the White Water Shaker Village organization is for the future of the Shaker buildings they are not custodians of. The original community could have contained as many as 45 to 50 buildings, but most have been claimed by time, fire, modern development and dynamite.

The next step on the Meeting House is to replace or repair the 26 sash windows. One estimate is that each window will cost $1,250 to $2,000 a huge sum for such a small non-profit volunteer organization.

But the task ahead is noble, according to the volunteers. There are many unique aspects of the White Water community that make this a project worth doing. For one, this is the only brick Shaker meeting house standing in the United States. And the interior of the meeting house was painted a very unusual red – blue was the color usually specified. And there are small mysteries everywhere. Small turned pegs by the windows. Interesting and unusual handmade iron latches. Additions to the buildings that have not yet given up their secrets.

The real question is if the local community – and the world at large – will help support the work at White Water and determine if the villages will become a grand tourist destination like Pleasant Hill or deteriorate into the fertile and welcoming dirt of the Ohio River valley from where the colony came.

For more information on White Water Shaker Village, visit the volunteer organization’s web site at whitewatershakervillage.org. You can become a member of the organization for as little as $20 a year (all donations are tax-deductible) and receive their periodic newsletter. To tour White Water’s structures via Google SketchUp, visit Google’s 3D Warehouse.

Christopher Schwarz is the former editor of this magazine.

Take an exclusive tour of White Water Shaker Village as part of Woodworking in America 2012 – to register, visit woodworkinginamerica.com

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