NORTH UNION SHAKER COMMUNITY organized in Cleveland in the summer of 1822. Better known as Shakers, members of the sect called themselves "Believers," a shortened version of "the United Society of Believers in the Second Appearing of Christ." Suffering persecution in England, a small band led by their founder, "Mother" Ann Lee, came to America in 1774. Ann Lee symbolized the second coming of Christ in female form, establishing the Shaker concept of sexual equality and of the deity as a father-mother God. Shaker colonies were founded in New York and the New England states, and later, on the frontier. North Union was one of the last of the 19 Shaker communities established. In 1811 Jacob Russell, a Revolutionary War veteran, purchased 475 acres of land in Connecticut's WESTERN RESERVE, in the upper DOAN BROOK valley. The following year, the Russell family of 20 moved from Connecticut to their new home in the wilderness. One of Jacob's sons, Ralph, visited the Shaker community of Union Village near Lebanon, OH, where he became a believer. In 1822 an elder persuaded him to establish a Shaker colony on the Russell property, later given the spiritual name "the Valley of God's Pleasure."
The first North Union meetings attracted many visitors. The Russell family provided early converts and others soon followed. The original landholdings increased to 1,366 acres, on which some 60 buildings were eventually constructed. The Shakers grew corn, flax, and hemp, and later introduced dairy cattle. Kitchen gardens produced sweet corn, pumpkins, potatoes, and cabbage. Committing oneself to Shakerism included taking vows of celibacy, confessing one's sins, turning any previously born children over to the Shakers to rear, donating all personal property to the community, and leading a simple life in a communal family where men and women were rigidly separated. At first one Center Family occupied a large dwelling west of Lee Rd. (between what are now Shaker and South Park boulevards in SHAKER HTS.). Expansion soon led to the establishment of the East or Gathering Family (on Fontenay Rd.) and the Mill Family (at Coventry Rd. and North Park Blvd.).
North Union reached its maximum growth by 1850 with 300 members. It was a thriving, almost completely self-supporting community, with a good income from the sale to the "world" of dairy products, canned fruits and vegetables, woolen and linen goods, medicinal herbs, garden seeds, brooms, and other items. The high quality of the Shakers' products and their honest dealings won them an enviable reputation. Their industriousness represented the fulfillment of Mother Ann Lee's admonition, "Put your hands to work and your heart to God." Shakers were also known for their ingenuity. Inventions attributed to North Union alone included the common clothespin, Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, and an automatic spring. The last 3 were invented by Daniel Baird. The Shakers dammed Doan Brook at 2 locations, forming the Upper and Lower SHAKER LAKES, thereby obtaining waterpower for a woolen mill, a sawmill, and a massive stone gristmill, an engineering marvel. For many years area farmers brought their grain there to be ground. The journals of JAMES PRESCOTT, a well-known North Union Shaker, provide a detailed history of the community.
After the CIVIL WAR, Shakerism declined. In an increasingly materialistic society, with religious revivals on the wane and communal societies losing their appeal, converts became fewer. Never turning away "lost souls from the other world," Shakers were frequently deceived by "Winter Shakers," pretenders who "believed" in the fall but left in the spring, after having enjoyed Shaker hospitality. Young people increasingly refused to accept celibacy. The loss of the young forced the hiring of outside labor for the heavier tasks. This added expense exacerbated the increasing difficulty in selling handcrafted products in competition with industry's mass production. By 1889, with only 27 members, North Union disbanded. Surviving members moved to other colonies in southern Ohio. A syndicate bought the North Union land in 1892 for $316,000. In 1905 ORIS P. AND MANTIS J. VAN SWERINGEN purchased the property for $1 million and developed it into the residential community of Shaker Hts. All of the old structures, then derelict, were torn down.
Although physically only 2 dams and a few stone gateposts remain, the North Union and other Shakers left a rich legacy. Ahead of their time, they practiced both racial and sexual equality and cared for orphans and homeless children. Shaker furniture endured as strong, functional, simple, and beautiful. Shakers invented hundreds of labor-saving devices, from which they did not profit financially because of their opposition to patents. They produced much enduring folk music, their progressive methods of animal and plant husbandry influenced agricultural development, and their ideals of simplicity, orderliness, pacifism, equality, perfectionism, cleanliness, and industriousness, still evoke admiration.
Richard D. Klyver
Shaker Historical Society
Piercy, Caroline. The Valley of God's Pleasure (1951).
Klyver, Richard. Brother James: The Life and Times of Shaker Elder, James Prescott (1992).
Shaker Collection, WRHS.
See also RELIGION.