ETHEL HUDSON’S LIFE AS A SHAKER IN Canterbury, N.H., began on a muddy spring day in 1907. The pigtailed 11-year-old and her older sister, Elizabeth, leaving a broken home, had taken the train from Salem, Mass., to Concord, N.H., then traveled the last 12 miles to Canterbury in a horse-drawn carriage. Elizabeth would move on, leaving the Shaker village when she was 20. Ethel, however, would devote the rest of her life to the community. On Sept. 7, Hudson died at age 96, the last of the Canterbury Shakers.
The Shakers, originally a breakaway sect of Quakers in England, came to North America in 1774, setting up their first community in upstate New York. Pacifists and communitarians, they scorned private property and lived lives of rigorous biblical rectitude. Through their inventions, which included the circular saw and the common clothespin, and their austere, finely crafted furniture, the Shakers exerted an influence disproportionate to their scant numbers—about 6,000 at their height in the 1840s.
By the time Ethel Hudson joined in 1907, the Shakers were already in decline, partly because of their celibacy—a requirement even for spouses. In 1965 the Shaker ministry decided not to accept new members—and the end of the sect became a matter of time. (The only other Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Me., disagreed with the decision and has eight members, some in their 20s.)
In January, Hudson described herself ruefully as “a Shaker remnant.” But, she said, “I’m not a cranky old lady. I’m a generous person.” Her favorite lines, often quoted, were from Longfellow’s Psalm of Life: “Let us, then, be up and doing, /With a heart for any fate; /Still achieving, still pursuing, /Learn to labor and to wait.”
For Ethel Hudson, the labor is done, the waiting at an end.