Enfield Shaker Elder William Wilson
Elder William Wilson
Cabinet card
Notman Photo Co., Boston, MA, ca. 1880
Collection of Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield, NH

Elder William Wilson

William Wilson, Shaker mechanic, beekeeper, and orchardist, was born February 23, 1847, in Chateaugay, New York. The names of his parents are not known.

Most children who were indentured to the Enfield Shakers came with at least one parent, or more often were dropped off by a parent still living “in the world.” In 1833, when six-year-old William Wilson was brought to the Second Family, he was an orphan. Samuel Brown (physician and herbalist) became his Shaker guardian and William grew to manhood in the care of this Shaker family. Henry Cumings notes that “William learned the shoemaker’s trade as well as the tanner and currier business and worked at those trades till they were given up about 1850.” At age 25 he accepted his first major leadership responsibility at the Second Family (also known as the South Family), becoming an assistant trustee to Jason Kidder. Seven years later he was moved to the Elders Order and served as associate to Elder Timothy Randlett.

In 1860 Wilson was moved from the Second to the North Family to serve as their business agent. He was needed there because Trustee Austin Bronson had proved not only unfaithful but dishonest, absconding with thousands of dollars of North Family money. Wilson served here for several years but had only modest success in retiring debt. He welcomed his return to the Second Family in 1867. From that time until the Family was forced to close and unite with the Church in 1893 Wilson devoted himself tirelessly to that family’s interests.

Always on the lookout for new economic opportunities, Wilson built a flatboat designed to move lumber and bark to the train depot. When the boat proved unstable, he went back to the drawing board. On August 25, 1875, The Granite State Free Press in Lebanon, New Hampshire, reported, “William Wilson has re-rigged his sailboat and added much more sail to it, and now it is in fine condition for excursion parties who wish to take a sail on Mascoma Lake. It will accommodate 75 or 100 persons, and being built quite flat there is not the least danger of its capsizing.”

Wilson held the distinction of being the only Enfield, New Hampshire Shaker to run for, and be elected to public office. He served on Enfield’s school board for three years. Since the Shaker schools were part of the public school system this was considered acceptable public engagement.

Under Wilson’s supervision, the Second Family retained a financial interest in a farm in Mount Morris, New York. The property was adjacent to the Groveland Shaker Community and provided the family with high-quality broom corn for their broom-making industry. When the property was sold in 1888 for $15,000, Wilson used the money to modernize the Second Family’s infrastructure. He hoped that by continually improving the property he could fend off increasing pressure to sell out and merge with the Church.

In 1889 it looked like there was a buyer for the property, but to the relief of the Family, the deal fell through. Perhaps there was still time to find an alternative to consolidation. Wilson hoped that tourism revenue would be the answer. By 1890 tourist visits had become an important income stream for the Church family. But their offerings were limited to single-day tours, carriage rides, meals, and shopping. Wilson had a bolder scheme in mind: a Shaker Hotel for short- and long-term summer guests. Once again, The Granite State Free Press was first to report on June 10, 1892:

Our genial and enterprising Shaker citizen, William Wilson, having overcome the objections, or rather gained the consent of the head ones of that Society, intends this summer to take a new departure and open up the ‘South Family’ property as a summer resort and hotel…. With fine buildings already there, a most beautiful and healthful location, pure air and water, and easy of access, we are sure the project will prove a success. Hats up for the “Shaker Hotel.”

Despite his best efforts, Wilson could not forestall the inevitable closing of his beloved Second Family. Although he would have preferred to remain there as property overseer, this was not acceptable to the New Hampshire Ministry. Wilson was needed at the Church to provide leadership in consolidating the two families.

In Enfield’s “Home Notes” in the March 1894 issue of The Manifesto it was reported, “Our Second family Brethren and Sisters have all now become members of the Church and North families, and the buildings are vacant for the first time in a century. We have moved over one hundred and twenty-five loads of household articles and there are many more to follow. Elder William Wilson has gone to New York to endeavor to effect a sale of their large farm” (p. 71).

Besides being a mechanic of considerable skill, Wilson was a beekeeper and orchardist. He is shown in a stereoview taken about 1880 at the Second Family with a very large apiary. After his move to the Church Family, he started over again, as the “Home Notes” in the August 1895 issue of The Manifesto reported, “Elder William Wilson, who is interested in bee culture, has been successful in enlarging his colony from three to nine hives. We hope they may increase an hundred fold as we regard honey profitable as food and merchandise” (p. 188).

Intent on honoring the legacy of the Second Family, Wilson had matching marble headstones placed in its small cemetery where 30 of his fellow Shakers were buried. And on his death, that cemetery became his final resting place.

Although he remained responsible for the property he was leaving behind, in April 1894 he accepted appointment as Elder at the Church Family, succeeding Elder Abraham Perkins. He served in that capacity until his death in 1907.

William Wilson died November 13, 1907, in the Shaker community at Enfield, New Hampshire. William Wilson is buried in the Second/South Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield under a headstone that he himself had ordered.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen