Caleb Dyer CDV
Carte de Visite, Brother Caleb M. Dyer
Photographer unknown ca. 1863
Private Collection.

Brother Caleb M. Dyer

Caleb Marshall Dyer, Shaker businessman and entrepreneur, was born August 25, 1800 in Brunswick, Vermont, the son of Joseph and Mary (Marshall) Dyer.

Accompanied by his parents, four siblings (Betsey, Orville, Jerub, and Joseph), and several family associates, Caleb Dyer arrived at the Enfield Shakers in 1812 at the age of 12 years old. They were the first large group of converts to be accommodated at the newly formed “Gathering Order” or North Family.

Caleb’s mother, Mary Marshall Dyer, left the society in 1814, attempted without success to take her children away from the Shakers, and became a life-long opponent of the Shakers. Mary wrote a widely distributed anti-Shaker book, A Portraiture of Shakerism (1822).

When Caleb was 19, he along with many others, contributed to A Compendious Narrative, Elucidating the Character, Disposition and Conduct of Mary Dyer, from the Time of her Marriage in 1799, till She Left the Society called Shakers, in 1815., by her husband Joseph Dyer (1818). In his affidavit (pp. 77-78), he wrote:

“I, Caleb M. Dyer (son of Joseph and Mary Dyer) now in the nineteenth year of my age, do depose and say, that I am fully satisfied with the agreement of my parents in placing me under the care and providence of the society in which I now reside, and with the kind treatment which I have ever received from the people since I have been placed under their care. I am fully satisfied with my home; I want no other; neither have I seen the time one minute since I lived with them that I wanted to go away.”

Caleb Dyer emerges from the pages of Enfield’s Shaker history as one of its most capable trustees. Armed with only a rudimentary formal education, he demonstrated extraordinary ability as a businessman and entrepreneur. He superintended his community’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. He oversaw its major building projects including the Great Stone Dwelling, Shaker Bridge, and an industrial complex in North Enfield. He played a central role in routing the Northern Railroad through Enfield while protecting the integrity of Shaker lands where the three families were located. He amassed large land holdings to support the Enfield Shaker society, and engaged in trade throughout New England and in New York City.

So important was Caleb Dyer’s role in the railroad project, that November 17, 1847, he was a passenger (along with Hon. Daniel Webster and other dignitaries) on the Northern Railroad’s inaugural run through to Lebanon, New Hampshire. Nineteen passenger cars were pulled by two new 20-ton locomotives, named “Shaker” and “Contoocook”, as reported in The New Hampshire Gazette in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on November 23, 1847 (p. 2)

He traveled extensively and was acquainted with politicians, civic leaders and businessmen in “the world.” He was highly regarded by the Mount Lebanon Ministry and in regular contact with many of the other Shaker societies in the east. He had a reputation for hard-nosed, but scrupulously honest, dealings with other Shaker societies and with “the world.” Despite frequent absences from his home and communal religious life, Caleb maintained a strong personal faith and an unwavering commitment to Shakerism.

Caleb was able to embrace the economic opportunities of the industrial revolution because the Enfield Shakers had a history of appointing financially conservative but far-sighted trustees. Brothers Nathaniel Draper, Samuel Barker, and True Worthy Heath had, in their day, purchased prime agricultural land, quarries, timberland and water rights. They were scrupulous in acquiring only what could be bought or traded without going into debt. The “hands to work” ethic of the society and careful past management of its shared resources gave Dyer the capital to develop a strong manufacturing economy.

But Caleb also inherited responsibility for the well being of a still growing community of 300 souls. During his 40-year tenure the Enfield Society enjoyed both economic and spiritual prosperity.

Because they were responsible for the shared contributions, and the shared inheritance of all family members, Shaker trustees were expected to keep detailed records of all business transacted in behalf of the society. Instead of creating independently verifiable account books, as the position demanded, Caleb relied heavily on cryptic notes and his own remarkable memory. The combination of a demonstrated commitment to his Shaker family and his strong record of financial success made it hard to criticize this shortcoming. In ways no one could anticipate, the absence of good business records ultimately cost the society dearly.

Caleb Marshall Dyer died on July 21, 1863 in Enfield, New Hampshire and is buried in the Enfield Shaker Church Family Cemetery.

Caleb Dyer holds the unhappy distinction of being the only Shaker to be murdered, an event that was widely reported in newspapers throughout the country, most completely in The Boston Traveler on July 21, 1863 (p. 2). Given that his mother, Mary Marshall Dyer, engaged in a life long crusade to prevent the Shakers from taking in children, it is particularly ironic that Caleb would die at the hands of an angry father. His death was shocking and emotionally devastating, not only to the Shakers, but also to the community at large. An article published in the Independent Democrat in Concord, New Hampshire on July 30, 1863 (p. 7) is typical of many that were published after his funeral. Eventually, his untimely death also proved to be economically ruinous to the Enfield Shakers. In the absence of detailed financial records, Brother Daniel Taylor, the surviving Church Family trustee, was forced to advertise in the New Hampshire Statesman in Concord, New Hampshire during August and September 1863 to ask financial claimants to identify themselves. Unfortunately, one of Dyer’s major business associates–The Shaker Woolen Mill in Enfield–made a claim against Caleb Dyer that was opportunistic and fraudulent. For 20 years the Shakers fought the case in court, but because they lacked essential documentation, the case was ultimately decided against them.

There was no question in Believers’ minds that this was a great miscarriage of justice. But they had also been taught the fundamental Shaker principle of separation from the world and its ways. By engaging so extensively in business with those outside their faith, many Shakers believed that Enfield was forced to learn the hard lesson of “you reap what you sow.”


Original author: Mary Ann Haagen

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