Sister Henrietta Spooner
Mary Henrietta Spooner, Shaker milliner, nurse, deaconess, trustee, was born in September 14, 1844 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the daughter of Seth C. and Mary (Knight) Spooner.
Nine year-old Mary Henrietta Spooner was brought to the Enfield Shakers in 1853. She came with her 7 year-old brother, Benjamin, and her young sister, Emma, age 4. The Shaker way suited the Spooner girls and they lived the rest of their lives as Believers. Benjamin left the society when he was 17.
Henrietta, as she was known, lived in the Church Family and attended school there. During the years that she lived in the Girl’s House her chores and work life were organized by her caretaker. After age sixteen she lived in the Great Stone Dwelling and assisted in the daily round of domestic work supervised by the family deaconesses. Like all the young sisters in her “class,” she rotated through month-long assignments in the kitchen, diary, bake room, dining room or laundry. She was also perfecting her skills as a needleworker. The 1870 U.S. Census lists her as a milliner.
In 1876, Henrietta moved from the Dwelling House to the Infirmary to assist in the care of the sick. She worked there as a nurse until 1881, when she moved to the Trustee’s Office to serve as an office deaconess. Here she created sales goods for the Office Store, waited on customers, and hosted the many overnight guests, both Shakers and “World’s people” who came to the village for visits or to transact business.
The office sisters were well aware that for some years membership on the brothers side had been in steep decline. Profitable businesses had to be discontinued for lack of manpower to do the work. As a result, income from sisters’ industries became increasingly crucial to the family’s economic survival. In addition to relying on store sales at home and wholesale contracts with “the World,” Henrietta began making sales trips to state fairs and expositions which were popular summer and fall events in Vermont and New Hampshire. On these sales trips she was accompanied by at least one other Shaker sister who helped with booth setup and selling. State fairs attracted thousands of visitors, and ran for several days, requiring the sisters’ absence from home for a week at a time. But sales were brisk, and the articles, “made chiefly by the Sisters, found ready sale, so they felt amply paid for the time and labor spent.”
For more than twenty years Henrietta worked under the capable direction of Church Family trustee, Caroline Whitcher. When Caroline died in 1902, Rosetta Cummings, who had been eldress of the family, was made first trustee on the sisters’ side, and Henrietta was named her associate. She, too was named a trustee. The two worked closely together for sixteen years, managing most of the business affairs of the Society. They were also active in the production of goods to fill orders for retail and wholesale customers alike. In 1904, in answer to a questionnaire submitted to them by Ernest McGregor, a Yale university student writing his thesis, they reported: “We manufacture Sweaters, Hosiery, Gloves, Opera Cloaks, and a variety of Fancy articles. Put up some Medicine, and prepare some confectionery, as sugared nuts, and roots. We also do some sewing as in making shirts for special customers.”
During her 37 years at the office, Henrietta engaged in the business interests of her community with skill and impeccable honesty. In a note to a friend she shared the text of an Enfield spiritual song that undergirded her faith in Shakerism.
God is infinitely able to sustain the weak and feeble
And to meet the demands of the needy and poor
Though they wade in deep waters Yet by fasting prayer and watching
He will safely, safely lead them to an unbroken shore.
O Canaan, fair Canaan, Golden days bespeak thy future
I behold the thousand hills whereon graze thy flocks and herds.
All Israel is before me clad in vestments of bright glory
And I hear their songs of victory, and feel power from their words.
In 1918, the Shaker Central Ministry relieved Rosetta Cummings and Henrietta Spooner of their trusteeship. In their place, Canterbury trustees Arthur Bruce and Irving Greenwood became responsible for the sale of Enfield’s property, and the relocation of the Enfield Shaker family to Canterbury. Henrietta did not live to see that work accomplished.
Mary Henrietta Spooner died unexpectedly on August 1, 1919 in Enfield, New Hampshire at the age of 75. She is buried in the Church Family Cemetery in Enfield.
Her Shaker sisters wrote of her, “she has always proven true and loyal to the religious interest of the Home, which she loved with a deep, earnest devotion and affection.”
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen