Sister Mildred, Shaker elder and National Heritage Fellow, was 92 years old when interviewed by Ann Waldren in 1989. This is Ann’s background to the interview: “Sister Mildred Barker is the oldest member of the oldest Surviving Shaker communityin the world. The Shakers call it Chosen Land at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine. Sister Mildred’s life span covers over one‑third of the history of the Shaker movement in America. In her mind are literally thousands of Shaker hymns that have never been recorded or written down. She teaches them to other members of the community and still sings into microphones for people like me who come to talk to her~ Sister Mildred is difficult to arrange an interview with because she does not regard herself as especially interesting. As she said in receiving an award at Westbrook College as a Maine Woman of Achievement in 1987, …I feel that it is Shakerism that is being honored tonight and certainly not me as an individual. And she accepted the tribute on behalf of her brothers and sisters.
In 1903, when Mildred Barker was seven years old, her mother brought her from Providence, Rhode Island where she had been born, to the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine. Her father had died and her mother did not have the means to take care of her children. Alfred was chosen because a cousin of the family was a sister there. As Sister Mildred tells her own story in the following pages, we hear that she immediately loved Shaker life. She felt wanted and loved there. When she was sixteen, her mother came to see if she would like to go home, but Sister Mildred had decided to stay. She visited often with her mother and they remained very close, but Shakerism had struck a deep chord within her and she says,
“I hope that my life shows that I have accepted the cross (of Shakerism)”
Sister Mildred is a profoundly religious woman. The story of her life is in many ways the story of her spiritual development. Although she is merry and irreverent about her self, she takes the calling of the Church very seriously. In an address to the Auburn Historical Society in 1965, Sister Mildred said, “In an age which so largely forgets God, the Shaker considers it a special privilege to have been allowed to share in a steady round of praise and loving service to the Almighty.”
Sister Mildred’s modesty leaves out her conversations with Aaron Copland who came to talk with her about “Applachian Spring” in which he used the melody of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” It leaves out her visit to Washington, D.C. to receive a National Heritage Fellowship and to sing at the Smithsonian. But it contains the details of a long, rich life of service to her community and its members, especially the younger ones. One of her favorite quotations is from Oliver Wendell Holmes on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, “The race is over, but the work is never done while the power to work remains.” In her own life Sister Mildred has personified the admonition of Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, “Hands to work and hearts to God.”
Our interview took place in June, 1988 in her office in the dwelling house at Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. Outside on route 26 huge trucks thundered by. Inside, her canary, Joy, competed for time on the tape recorder. Occasionally Demetrius, the community’s large German shepherd wandered into the room and Sister Minnie waved as she passed the door, Brother Arnold delivered the mail. It’s all here as it happened.
BRIGHTNESS AND LIGHT
They call me the spiritual leader of the community. I’ve been head of traditions for quite same time, I suppose, because I led in the spiritual studies to the young people. Way back they’ve spoken to me as a spiritual leader; but there was no appointment in it. There are some that had titles and all those things years and years ago but it’s diminished since there were fewer of us. They just referred to me as the spiritual leader in the community…. Maybe 20, 25 years ago.
I went to the Shakers when I was seven, to Alfred, Maine. There were probably 15 or 20 children there. I was thinking that at the schoolhouse there must have been 20 or 25 maybe. Something like that and even that may be a little low, it was so long ago. I just don’t remember how many. Why they were there varied according to what the situation of the family was. If the family or parents wanted, they placed them there and then left them there as they wanted them or as long as the child was happy and if not some of them as you say were without parents and people had decided to leave them there and that it would be a good place for them to grow up. Some of them did stay as adults and many didn’t but I mean that was the point. When they went there they were being taken care of until they decided what they wanted and many of them only stayed there till the end of their teens and then they were taken away by their parents or there was same reason or other why they didn’t stay.
We went to a regular one‑room school run by the town. We had our own teacher for the Shaker village when I was there but it was under the town jurisdiction, all the children in that locality, all in that rural area. There was no religious education in school. We had prayers, a reading, but that was as far as that went, we always had the songs that we sang in the school in the morning. At the community well, we had our Bible classes, Sunday school, teachings and different little gatherings together which we as children didn’t have any great big name for it. I think we had Bible classes and teachings on manners; we had classes on good manners and things of that sort. I learned Shaker history when I was older, I didn’t learn that at seven years. When I was older we learned about the early Shakers and when they came here and how they started. I probably was in my teens.
We didn’t have any kind of ceremony or communion. We had out teacher, our permanent teacher who took care of us, an eldress took care of me and she ordered my, you know, my bringing out, my teaching and if I needed any reprimanding or anything of that sort, it was up to her to take care of everything with other people that were there. It was according to who you were working with. If I was helping one of the older sisters in the kitchen, she was responsible for me and I was responsible to her to mind and my training and things like that and wherever you did work, the same thing would apply to our bringing up. We learned to sweep, take care of our beds and all those things, we helped in the kitchen in whatever they were doing. If there was something that we could help about, we did.
We used to live in the big house and do laundry in a separate house and there were workrooms upstairs and different sewing rooms in other houses, but of course we ate and grew up and had our bedrooms in the big house. We slept in a room, and sometimes there were more when I was very small.
We didn’t touch the fires in the stoves until we were old enough to be trusted with them. When we were small we had somebody who made the fires for us. It was in 1903 and 1905 and 1910 there was no electricity and no oil. You just had stoves. We had big rooms where we stayed together. We had a TV room but there was no TV. We did have radios when they came into being but when I was small, we didn’t.
The eldresses took me there with their family, took me down there and that was more or less a gathering family where they put many children to start and then they would move them out into other parts of the community. And I went down there until I was older ‑ until I was in my teens. Sometimes you put children there and sometimes older people went there. I was a child and I think probably the strongest force was that I loved the ones I was with. I loved the sisters and everyone in the family and all the children that I was with I felt very warmly to and that I was wanted too and I think that is what holds them when they are as young as I was in that period of time. Even though they were teaching me, they had a way of teaching me that I didn’t rebel against although many times I was rebellious such as when I wouldn’t eat when I was working. I used to push my food around my plate. One of the girls I was with, one of the girls I grew up with used to say to me “put it over on my plate” and I did! I think every child is the same, you just can’t get it into your mouth, it just won’t go in.
And then I had another thing, I had a 90 year old sister that I loved so much. I was given a chore to wait on her and I thought that was the most beautiful thing to do ‑ to see if I could help her, do things for her and when I think of myself now, how she was my age but she was feeble. But you didn’t hear those things then. You don’t stop, that’s why you stay active. I may stop all in a hurry like the bird did the other night. (She speaks to Joy, her canary)
Not everyone learned how to sew. Different things that they were capable of, some would do one thing and another. Of course we had a lot of things we made for the gift shop that pertained to that age now and a lot of things we made and we did sewing and things of that sort. They used to go out to different hotels and sell as long as I can remember and especially the elder brother. You could take it up to the White Mountains and places like that and down to the shore and sell. He made some oval boxes but not in the amount that Brother John did and he also did some of the weaving on the poplar. He let us do that to make poplar boxes and of course as we ~L~W older and more capable we finished them up and lined them and all those things. It takes time. Some of those things are very intricate. They made those cloaks up to the first family where they had a bigger shop and all those things. And that’s where I was. There was mostly young people like me and then I stayed there many years longer and helped take care of children an d young people so while I did have employment and all that I never did make the cloaks.
That was the church family, at Alfred. There were three families then, in the same area. The church family would be not as far down as the Outlet Road but between here and there and then there was another family down further that they used to take them in but that was before I went there, they had closed up by the time I got there. The church family were the elders and the trustees and then other people, younger people to carry on the work and young sisters and brothers that were part of that big family. There was a children’s house up there. But Alfred closed in 1931.
Probably sewing was my favorite teen‑age thing to do. I also enjoyed the weaving and thing of that sort that we had. By that time I had learned cooking and was able to work in the kitchen. Then I became the head cook. We didn’t have what we have now. As I tell Sister Frances, you used what was on hand and nothing more. You couldn’t run out to the store. We had no privilege to run out to the store and get a pinch of salt and a cup of this and that. It was bought in quantity and we used it and there was plenty of it. We had common food. And some of the things were fancier than they are now, like pies and cakes and all those things. They always had desserts for every noon and sauce at night anyway, morning could be your cereal or toast, eggs and things of that sort.
The men worked on the farm. We didn’t work much on the farm except that we went out and picked berries of if there was some special weeding to do. Sometimes we would go out and help with that. It wasn’t our duty, it was something we just did. I don’t think when I was small that the washing machine had even been invented at that time. I didn’t know much about it later I just took it from what history told me of course we have on here. The one in Canterbury is much different. They were all different.
I liked children. Well, I was appointed to work with children. I guess I had the quality, they felt that I could handle them. At one time I had 10 teenagers under my jurisdiction. I did pretty well. To this day ‑ those that are left ‑ I get letters all the time ‑ call me mama. One girl sent that plate up there. “God couldn’t be everywhere so he made mothers.” I have more letters. I have gifts and things from my girls. There’s one out in Missouri that’s coming here in July, she want’s to see me and see Frances, and there is one here in Maine that I used to call my gypsy sweetheart. She always remembers to come see me and her little grandson always brings me a kiss for his grandmama so I just like them.
I taught them the values of life, you know, how to live and things that they would need. I gave discipline but just with my words ‑ I never used a rod. I had a Bible class and things of that sort. My own schooling went right up until the eighth grade. That’s all the privilege we had because we were way out in the country. I know one girl we had there took a normal course and she went on teaching but I didn’t want to do that. I wasn’t interested in being a school teacher. I liked history. English was my favorite subject. You can bring into most any study English. It’s necessary values, too. Every subject comes up in English. That’s why I liked it.
After 8th grade, I worked full time at the village. We always had conferences and clubs and we had to do a lot of reading, writing, and learning in those clubs, Beacon Light Clubs we called them. Because we felt that we should be beacon lights and help someone else. Eldress Harriet Coolbroth was head of that family down there and she was the president of it and I did a lot of writing and poetry during that time. We had a week’s work every week. Then we had a program that we worked on the next week, see to bring to the club meeting and we were able to get through whether it was to write on somebody or write a poem, write on something whatever we had to study ‑ we brought it in the way you would school. Then we had a paper on the Beacon Light Club. We used to write one for every room and one for Sister Ada Cummings at Sabbathday Lake.
When I was 16 years old my mother came and asked me to leave and go with her. In the meantime after my father died she remarried and during that time I went with the Shakers, I didn’t know the man because that was after I had left. She came up when I was 16 and told me she asked me to come up and asked me to go and leave with her and I said I’m not ready to leave I’m not sure what I want. And she just took my answer and went along with it and left, she was friendly, she didn’t object to it, she probably did want me, but I also had an Aunt that wanted me very much but my mother wouldn’t let me go with her even when I was small. And she never got over that desire to have me come with her and my mother always came to see me in Alfred and spent a lot of time and even over there in Sabbathday Lake, she did accept my decision and never made disturbance about it, she wanted me but I think that she just knew she had put me there and opened that way for me to make up my own mind and she let me have it.
I had a cousin there and that’s how I happened to go there. She was older than I ‑ a lot older. And I guess probably she had influence to bring me up. That’s how I happened to go there.
When she was 14 years old. My mother was born in Manchester England. She was Catholic but my father was Episcopalian. I was Christened, Episcopal. There was a little sister that I had, she was very very sick and she died real early but they always loaded her with dolls. We were born in Providence. Catherine Jackson, that was my mother’s mother. James Barker was my father. James Powell Barker, my grandfather, James Powell Barker, my father, James Powell Barker, my brother, James Powell Barker, my nephew, James Powell Barker my other nephew, there’s five in a row. My father died so young, so early that I don’t have any recollection of him. There was my brother. I do have some cousins in Newport still, but I kind of lapsed writing and things and I had one that ‑ we write back and forth occasionally.
At 16 I knew very well what I wanted, I just hadn’t made any regular commitment. I knew I wanted to be a Shaker. We always signed the church Covenant, if we definitely intended to stay there or if they didn’t they still signed it, or if they didn’t they still signed you because that was really a legal connection to the Family because there might be people who could say the brought in a lot and donated or consecrated at one time and then decide to leave they could bring a lot of pressure and demand upon the return of what they have put in and they would certainly be involved in all these processes.
The legal age was 21 and if you signed before you weren’t legally considered. I wasn’t legally considered that it was safe for the Family; you know, it was like children signing and they really didn’t know what they were doing. I was one of the head cooks. I was able to do those things but that was no pronotion to be a head cook, that was just something you did. I had a reputation as a candy maker. That must have been over ten years I worked in there. Sister Jenny had started and wanted to do a candy business and I went in with her, and then we decided we’d like to have the chocolates, you know have them dipped, and she tried it and she didn’t make out too well with dipping and I did. I said all right, Sister Jenny, you take care of the cooking and I’ll do the dipping. Don’t you try to dip. so she had plenty to do because there was jelly and everything. Anyway, it was a long process and besides she was a trustee and she had a lot of work to do, book work, so I’d sit in the cellar as long as the chocolate was usable, we had an electric plate under it and it had to be just so warm to melt the chocolate to consistency so I could use it for dipping and when that was done I had to put more chocolate in and stop dipping and we’d leave them generally overnight and then we’d pack them in the boxes the next morning and Sister Marie held them. She was up to the office and she helped them pack.
Sister Jenny used to make people go out pickling. I never did any pickling. I never did anything of that sort. I did do jelly, I made a lot of jelly, hundreds of it. We sold it up out by mail and wherever they went to sell fancy work, they took candy. They made fudge and of course, then we’re doing the dates.
I started with assorted chocolates and we flavored with a certain amount of the formula maybe with strawberry, with raspberry, with lemon, vanilla and all that and I keep the kind separate when was dipping them, and then we did some cherry work but I never liked that ‑ because it’s bound to leak ‑ but we did it. And then finally from that we started in on the peppermints and wintergreens and when it got ‑ after Sister Jenny had died,it got to be a little more than I could keep up with I cut out all the assorted and did just the peppermints, and wintergreens and the dates and jelly and things of that sort. We could keep up with that but we couldn’t keep up with so much because it was really only a few of us working on it.
They say there’s candy recipes, books that I gave them but to me I had no special recipe for the formula and that’s what I started with and as I say we would sugar with its syrup in it and whatever else we happened to have and we coated it at a certain temperature and of course we had candied it and then when it was the right temperature we’d take it off and turn it into that big beater that’s right there in the kitchen now and some other things, I’ll have to think it up, I guess, and then when it was the proper consistency, proper temperature we’d start the beater and when it was done it was a big hard lump almost a rock it was so hard. We’d take it off and put it on the marble slab and cover it.
Finally, there was so much that went on and I was demanded in so many ways that I stopped making candy. I hated to but I did. Oh, my soul, by then I was a trustee and I had all that work to do and it was one thing to do that and do it correctly and properly and no spend half my time and I used to have to go do the buying and had all that to do, and I was driving by that time,was driving a car so if there was something to be done I drove.
I must have been about 53 when I stopped making candy. At 50 I was appointed a trustee ‑ permanently. I didn’t work in the kitchen after I got over here. They put somewhere else immediately and I never did anymore cooking and I didn’t like it because I wanted to be in the kitchen. I always enjoyed the kitchen.
I had young people to care for, you know, and all those things and of course there was the school. I took the teenagers and girls that had left the children’s order and come in the house which were a little too old for out there, and they had the younger children out there and mine were in their teens.
You didn’t sit around and do nothing ‑ keep your mind occupied ‑ do something ‑ so with me there was no problem because I loved poetry, I loved writing, I loved history, I loved all those things. After we got over here, there were a lot of people, the place was bigger and they were involved all the time with those things.
Shakerism has been my life. It’s a whole role in my life. To me, Shakerism is a living force. I wrote more poetry, I don’t know why I kept it around. Pretty good for the pen and ink we had to go with. (Reads from her poem:) To me Shakerism is a living force and will yet be felt in the world regardless of our members ‑ numbers or age we have what the world is seeking and it will yet come into its own. What God has made alive will not stay buried.
You had your point of twilight beautifully, but you missed the brightness and Light which is Shakerism.
I went to Washington. They wanted me to come down and sing Shaker songs. They were, I don’t know how many…two I had in my hand. Anyway, there were quite a few people that were all accepting awards ‑ not all from Maine but I was from Maine and then there was a fiddler from Maine and I think there’s one other and the others were from different states. Anyway, they called me and asked me if I’d come down, and I said I certainly won’t come to Washington because I’m not coming there alone. And they said bring someone with you. I said, how many, and they said bring any amount you want and I said four? (laughter) He said yes, we’ll pay for it; so I took Brother, Arnold and Francis and myself there was four of us. We went down and we were there about a week and we were going to sing and of course I was the one who was up for the award (at the Smithsonian) and when I took the award and when I sung for the award Pete Seeger introduced me. The place was packed, and I can remember just how it looked like as if there were a curtain between me and them, when I sang, and I sang and then when I finished I told them I had one more I wanted to sing and I sang “Mother Has Come with Her Beautiful Song,” and what an applause and clapping. I was so glad to get out. So I did get my award. The whole story is in the library somewhere. I probably didn’t (like it, what was in the paper). (laughter) There was something else recently not too far away, I’m sure Francis would know or Arnold would know.
I suppose there were things that I enjoyed more than others but whatever was a part of the whole thing even though it’s like a building sometimes it’s the small things that hold it all together and I had that ‑ always had felt that you didn’t have to be a rock on the side of a hill you could still be a small pebble somewhere, so I could feel that lesser things were important for me to be faithful in it as the more important things, appeared to be more important to me, sometimes the lesser ones are most important. We always made a great deal of Mother Ann’s and Father James’ birthdays, also the 6th of August. To me, those things have always been very special ever in significance that you can’t get anywhere else. And we put a lot of, well, what shall I say, it wasn’t elaborate but it was real significant spiritual work we put into it to remind us of the message that they left us, what our calling was and commitment was through them. We most always did have a religious service and we still do for that matter. The 6th of August was the day that Mother arrived in America and that is very special significance and was very special to us and practically it wasn’t a celebration but there was a lot of feeling and work we put into it.
We generally exchange presents at Christmas if we can afford it, if not we just give what we can. It’s not elaborate gifts. Really more elaborate I suppose by the standards of when I was small and I grew up. Always as long as I can remember they had a Christmas tree and little celebrations. We used to have entertainment, the children did, put on a little entertainment when I was small.
Easter had a great significance to us, the resurrection and that has a great Shaker significance to work on too ‑ how we feel about the resurrection.
I’ve done my own spiritual traveling in the gospel, I won’t say I’m proud of it but I’m very, what shall I say ‑ sounds kind of like one of these nobles. I can say what my spiritual work has done to my whole life that I feel the most satisfied or, I don’t feel satisfied either.
Aaron Copland. (S.M. sings) I danced in the morning when the world was begun and I danced in the noon with the stars and the sun. I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth. At Bethlehem I had my birth. Dance, dance wherever you may be I am the Lord of the dance said he
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance said he.
He let me down and leaped up high
I am the life that will never never die
I’ll live in you if you live in me
I am the Lord of the dance said he.
That tune has gone all over the earth, I guess. I always loved this by Oliver Wendell Holmes ‘‑‑the riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing their goal, there is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to one’s self: “The work is done.” But just as one says that, the answer comes: “The race is over, but the work is never done while the power to work remains.” The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be while you still live for to live is to function. That is all there is in living. (That’s what I think, too.)
Shakerism is something that can be just as applicable today as it was 200 years ago. I just do not see why they think Shakers are dying out ‑ the people may die but there’s nothing can happen to the belief, the faith it’s so permanent.
More and more people are beginners, that’s right, that’s right. How long did it take to get James to finish his mission? It was over 2,000 years. God has his own time, I fully believe it, and he takes his own time.
Every community had a spiritual name. This was Chosen Land, Alfred was Holy Land and Canterbury was Holy Ground and Hancock was City of Peace and Lebanon was Holy Mount and those out west ‑ I can’t remember but everyone had a spiritual name. They’re peace grounds, see at that time they had a peace ground where they used to go sometimes once a year and there was a stone and on them they used to go up and hold services. After a long while, I don’t know why. Brother could tell you exactly what it is. The ministry at the head, they were like the Pope. They were the ones that suggested what should be done and they were supposed to take care of those stones. And not go up there any more, everything had a certain permanence in a certain period. I don’t know where this one is. I do know where Alfred stone is. I know within a little bit ‑ so I’m the only one that knows, they’ve tried to get me to tell. I’m not supposed to and I never will. I would hate to have those stones brought out and put in a museum and elaborate shows put on about them. That’s at Alfred; that’s what was. For me, I never would say anything that’s going to change that. That’s why they have a holy name.
Sister Pauline Springer was the one that wrote “Mother has come with her beautiful song.” That was hers, and she learned it from a little bird. They had a lot of gift songs back in 1845. That was a late song for that period of time. She said she learned it from a little bird in her sleep. She was one of the old, old sisters ‑ she was 90 when she died. Most of those beautiful songs did so much for me when I growing up and made me want to learn the songs for the inspirationism. They weren’t just words and rhymes, they were inspirational songs and I loved them. And I’d get sister to teach them to me ‑ I’d say come on out in the laundry, and sing. I wouldn’t have known them if it wasn’t for her. I have taught a lot of these songs and I know so many more and I wish they’d take time to learn them. My voice gave out. I cracked wow! I’m just terrible. Course I haven’t any more brains than to sing in front of people. (laughter)
My faith has given me the ability to meet whatever change in life. To meet change with calmness and ability to get within my strength and within my knowledqe.