Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Union Village Community thrived in 19th century

Relics remember area's Shaker past

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        TURTLECREEK TWP. — While entrepreneurs plan a new shopping mall on Ohio 63, the past refuses to vanish from the Warren County countryside.

        A few miles to the east, near Ohio 63 and 741, stands a reminder of an unusual culture and religion that all but ended with the 19th century.

        Otterbein-Lebanon Retirement Community is on the site of the original Union Village, a major Shaker settlement that thrived in the early and mid-1800s, but today is a shadow in time.

        “We have few photographs of Union Village, and the only ones we do have are from 1912 and later,” said archivist Mary Lue Warner, who runs Otterbein's small Shaker Room museum.

        By 1912, only 16 Shakers remained on the grounds. That year the Church of the United Brethren in Christ bought the site — all 4,005 acres, which included the land on which Lebanon Correctional Institution lies.

        Miss Warner conducts guided tours of Otterbein's Shaker past, including the one-room museum and Marble (1810) and Bethany (1844) halls. Pieces of old handmade furniture sit in corners. Both buildings are still used by Otterbein for offices and residences.

        With its ornate Victorian exterior and marble floors, Marble Hall doesn't even resemble a basic Shaker building. That's because it was remodeled at the beginning of the 20th century.

        “They (Shakers) wanted to Victorianize the building because they thought it would help attract new members,” Miss Warner said. “The marble was not in the spirit of the Shakers.”

        The Shakers were a celibate people, dedicated to religious beliefs that set them apart from others in the county. They practiced equality of the races and sexes before their time. Their village reached its peak in the early 1800s, with nearly 700 residents.

        But the strictness of their beliefs, the celibacy and isolation of their commune helped drive away members and limit the number of converts.

        The Shakers — called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming — claimed that spirits of famous people visited Union Village, including those of Christopher Columbus, Lafayette, and Adam and Eve.

        Today, Union Village Shakers are known more for their mail-order seeds, high quality furniture and ability to construct strong buildings than for their theology.

        “They supposedly made a million bricks here on the property to build Bethany Hall,” Miss Warner said. “They did everything here. They even made their own sugar. They didn't need the world.”

        In the Shaker Museum, Miss Warner keeps a list of Shaker inventions, including the wooden slat-back chair, circular saw, revolving oven and the flat-sided broom.

        For information on tours, call Otterbein at 932-2020.


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