John Bradford Carte de Visite
Carte de Visite, Brother John Bradford
Photographer unknown, ca. 1880
Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA.

Brother John Bradford

John Bradford, son of Thomas and Electra (Sargent) Bradford, was born December 19, 1823 in Pomfret, Vermont.

John Bradford’s family was living in Enfield, N.H. when he joined the Shakers in 1833. He was not alone in his decision to try the life. In all, nine of his siblings, and several cousins spent some portion of their lives as members of the Society. John and his sister Tryphena were the two Bradford children who remained Shakers for life.

As a young man John served the community as a blacksmith and mechanic. In 1854 he was appointed family deacon, beginning what would be a half-century of responsibility for the physical well being of the society. Although Caleb Dyer was at that time the unquestioned mastermind of all family business dealings, John’s responsibilities slowly increased. Soon after Caleb’s murder he was appointed Trustee of the Church Family.

Bradford successfully oversaw Shaker business interests, but always in the shadow of an opportunistic lawsuit that was initiated at the time of Caleb’s death. Bradford also needed to constantly adjust his economic aspirations to the realities of dwindling membership, particularly on the brothers’ side. Recruiting hired help was an ongoing challenge. And holding on to market share of important industries became an ever-intensifying battle. Still, the community continued to manufacture and sell highly regarded products including brooms, wooden tubs, pails and measures, garden seeds, medicines and agricultural products.

In 1882 the “dreaded and interminable Conant lawsuit” was finally decided, and the verdict was against the Shakers. Faced with a financial obligation of more than 20 thousand dollars, Bradford saw liquidation of property as the best means of raising money. Thus began the slow but unremitting work of selling off the land, buildings and commercial properties that could be spared.

As Bradford aged so did other Shaker men who had shared responsibility for the community. Increasingly John was left to manage not only business interests, but to provide spiritual guidance and support to younger members. A touching letter to a young believer appeared in the Feb. 1890 Manifesto that reflects not only Bradford’s strong faith in Shakerism, but also his desire to support others in that life.

Bradford continued his active, faithful service as Enfield’s First Trustee until four weeks before his death. His obituary in the local paper testifies to the respect accorded him by his Shaker family, and by the locals who had interacted with him for half a century.
“…He was modest, unassuming, a man of few words, but those words were always to the point, and from which there was no wavering, in fact he was a strong minded, capable, unselfish citizen and business man.”

John Bradford died June 15, 1904 in the Shaker community at Enfield, New Hampshire and is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen