Enfield Shaker Sister Martha Wetherell
Sister Martha Wetherell
Real photo postcard
Photographer unknown, ca. 1913
Collection of Hamilton College Library, Clinton, NY

Sister Martha Wetherell

Martha Wetherell, Shaker poplarware maker, is believed to have been born December 19, 1855, in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Her father’s name is unknown. Her mother was Martha (Wright) Wetherell, a widow who had emigrated with five children from London, England, to Connecticut about 1852. Martha was an “embroideress” living in Hartford, Connecticut, until her death about 1862. An article in the Hartford Courant (October 7, 1857) reported, “Mrs. Martha Wetherell, 121 Ann Street, contributes [to the County Fair] many beautiful specimens with the needle, with which she is enabled to support herself and family, consisting of five small children.”

The biography of Shaker sister Martha Wetherell is distinguished by the fact that during her long life she resided for extended periods of time in five different Shaker societies. Two of her half-brothers, John Robert Wetherell and George Walter Wetherell, became members of the Shaker community at Hancock, Massachusetts.

In September 1862 as a young child, Martha was placed with the Enfield, Connecticut Shakers. In a New York Times interview (1922), she stated “There wasn’t any place for me to go when I was left an orphan but to the Shakers, and I’ve been here ever since.” The 1870 U.S. Census lists her as living in the Church Family at Enfield with six other girls of her own age, all “keeping house” and attending school. Later, she served as the “girls’ caretaker.” In August 1887 when she was thirty-two, she “removed” to the Church Family at Hancock Shaker Village, in West Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she served as an “office sister” and lived there until March 1893. She then “removed” to the Church Family in Canterbury, New Hampshire, where she moved into the Trustees’ Office and took charge of the Society’s fancywork industries.

During her first summer at Canterbury, Martha began traveling to New England hotels and county fairs to sell Sisters’ fancy work. The next fall she and Sister Edith Caswell began developing a new line of “straw fancy work” that we call “poplarware” today. Based on the designs of poplarware from Shaker villages where Martha Wetherell lived and worked, it appears that it was she who introduced the idea of adding colored stripes to the fancy work. A Canterbury journal entry dated October 30, 1895, records “Poplar dying (sic) for Fancy work by L.A.S. [Lucy Ann Shepard], S.F.W. {Sarah F. Wilson] & M.W. [Martha Wetherell]”; and on November 24, 1896, “Lucy Ann & Co. engaged in dyeing goods and poplar for fancy work.” In 1897, Martha Wetherell and Sarah Wilson went to Boston “to select materials for the new industry, Opera Cloaks.”

In addition to creating new products and finished articles worth thousands of dollars, Martha was an accomplished salesperson. Canterbury sister Asenath Stickney’s diary entry of September 3, 1899, states, “Julia Briggs and Martha Wetherell reach home today after an absence of 5 weeks, 3 days. They sold $1700 worth of goods on their trip.”

In June 1905, Martha Wetherell left the Canterbury Shakers and was admitted at Enfield, New Hampshire’s North Family; no explanation for her departure is noted in surviving community records. And there is scant documentation of Martha’s eight years as a sister at Enfield. It is likely, however, that she contributed significantly to the sisters’ fancy work industry here.

By 1913 steadily declining membership at Enfield forced the community to weigh options for consolidation. One idea was to relocate from the Church Family property to the North Family where fewer buildings and a smaller farm would be easier to maintain. In anticipation of such a move, Martha Wetherell and three young sisters from the North Family were relocated in April 1913 to the North Family at Mount Lebanon, New York. Although the three young people eventually left the Society there, Martha remained a faithful Shaker sister. In addition to her superintending the store at the Trustees’ Office, Martha also contributed to the daily round of domestic duties. Many of her recipes were collected in William Lassiter’s 1959 book, Shaker Recipes for Cooks and Homemakers, and have recently been kitchen-tested for modern cooks to use (see Enfield Shaker Recipes).

Over the years Martha was occasionally sought out by newspaper reporters, and her comments offer insight into her life at Mount Lebanon. This exchange with a New York Times reporter was published in the Sunday edition on June 18, 1922:

According to Sister Martha Wetherell, who reluctantly came from behind her counter to show the workroom where she cuts the grasses for her baskets, “the Shakers are a quiet people who only wish to be left alone…. Of course no one wants to join the Shakers now,” said this energetic 65 year old member. “No one wants a quiet life or much time to think today. There is too much going on out in the world and we don’t offer any attractions here. Nothing but hard work.” She added, smoothing her black and white calico apron and sinking down onto a short-legged Shaker chair. “There are so few of us left to take care of things here we have no time for meetings. No time to talk over experiences or to discuss matters. In the old days there were many of us to do the work. Now, I work in this store all summer and in the winter take my turn in the kitchen. We each take over the cooking for a time, and, of course, have all the other work to do.”

About herself, she said to the reporter:

“I have always found it hard to say anything in meeting. It was not easy for me to speak as others did. But I had my thoughts. And I don’t know that they were always good thoughts. We all have our misgivings and the Shakers are not different from other people…. I have gone and sat in my room many a time pondering over injustices, or wondering what to do when some one had not done the fair thing. I used to lose my temper and talk sharply. They tell me here that no one can do anything good enough for me, and I don’t know but that’s so.” (section 7, page 2)

In 1937 she shared the following with a reporter for the New Jersey paper, The Trenton Times:

Aged but dainty, Sister Martha Wetherell, prim in her starched Shaker bonnet and gown of blue, peered over the counter in the Lebanon Shaker store which caters to the tourist trade, and reminisced over the days when she, like Geraldine Moore [the only pupil left in the Hancock Shaker School], was a child in a Shaker school. “Things were different then,” she said, gazing across the way at a vacant building that once served as a Shaker dormitory, “but we Shakers know that God taught ‘that which has a beginning must have an end.'” (June 13, 1937, p. 53)

Sister Martha Wetherell died on January 25, 1944, at New Lebanon, New York, a member of the North Family at the Mount Lebanon Shaker community. She is buried in the Shaker cemetery at Mount Lebanon, New York.

Notices of Martha Wetherell’s death were printed in several newspapers in New York and Massachusetts, including an obituary in The Berkshire Eagle published on January 25, 1944 (p. 5).

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen