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Union Village and the Shakers of Warren County, Ohio
GEORGE K. H. BAXTER: A 'BLACK SHEEP' SHAKER
by Elaine R. Baxter
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If a time-traveling sociologist were to observe the Christmas 1877 gathering of a certain Baxter family in Charlestown, Massachusetts and indulge in a speculative game of "a child most likely to become an Elder of the Shaker church"…. he or she would probably not have selected 16-year-old George. His father's family was one of the oldest in the Boston area, with an established history in real estate, politics, commerce and the military; his mother's great-grandfather had distinguished himself at the Battle of Lexington. His three older brothers (John, Augustus and William, ranging in age from 17 to 21) had already established themselves in trade. Three of his four aunts emigrated to California during the Gold Rush years and together with their husbands were among the founders of the city of Stockton.
     George was born on 30 October 1861 in Charlestown/Medford, the fifth of eight children of Augustus Giles Baxter and Helen Elizabeth Johnson. His father's eldest sister Ann had married wealthy Boston furniture manufacturer George Kennard Hooper in 1849; and when Augustus and Helen's third child was born in 1859, the baby was named George Hooper Baxter in honor of his uncle-by-marriage. Sadly, baby George survived for only three months. Their next child was William, but when yet another son appeared in 1861 it was decided to once again name the baby after Augustus's brother-in-law: George Kennard Hooper Baxter.
     Not much is known of George's very early years other than from the 1880 census which shows his occupation as "news stand"; it also appears that he, along with his brother Augustus, learned the trades of painting and wallpapering. George's parents and siblings do not seem to have had a particularly religious bent, although some influence in that direction may have come from George's grandmother, Mary Milne. Mary was accepted into the Second Baptist Church (Boston) at an early age and all the evidence I have discovered about her indicates that religion was a very powerful force in her life. However, it is uncertain how much influence she may have had on young George because in 1868 she and her husband John Walker Baxter, although by then in their seventies, decided to relocate to Stockton to join their four daughters and their families. At this juncture, their grandson George K.H. Baxter was only seven years old.
     Between 1880 and 1883 all of George's brothers married, established their own homes and had at least one child. A photograph of George which is undated but must have been taken during the early to mid-1880s shows a strikingly handsome young man who would not look out of place on the cover of a modern-day issue of Esquire or 'GQ'… so George's unmarried state was certainly not a consequence of his physiognomy! The first record we have of George's association with the Shakers comes from the archives of Canterbury Shaker Village, which shows that on 26 May 1884 he came to their community "to try the Shaker life". Approximately 18 months later (21 November 1885) he left Canterbury and went to the Enfield Shakers; their records also say that he "apparantly left soon after" but do not give an exact date.
     The five-year period between 1887 and 1893 seem to have been one of great indecision for George. During those years he was re-admitted to Enfield (1887) after signing the Articles of Agreement for joining the North Family; was "re-admitted to the Church on probation" (circumstances not provided) on 17 August 1888; left Enfield at least once during 1890, "returned soon after, and was again accepted into the North Family" [from Enfield archives]. George's parents and two older brothers moved to from Charlestown to Wakefield, MA, in the late 1880s. George appears in the Wakefield City Directory as living at their address in 1888, 1889 and 1890. However, he does not appear in the Directory thereafter, so we can assume that he finally decided to settle at Enfield Shaker Village. Their website indicates that George Baxter was involved in the repainting of the 182 windows of the Great Stone Dwelling there in 1898.
     In 1899 the history of George K.H. Baxter with the Shakers took a dramatic turn. At the age of 38 he was made an Elder and also the business manager for the North Family [no exact date given in the Enfield archives for this event]. On 8 January 1900, George suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Enfield, taking several hundred dollars of the Society's money with him. The event was widely reported in the local newspaper. His motives for this heinous act remain unknown. In mid-February, Enfield still had no clue as to his whereabouts; however, by March they had undoubtedly learned that George had arrived at the Shaker community at Union Village, Turtle Creek, Ohio. We can only speculate on the nature of the correspondence that must have taken place between Enfield and Union Village regarding George, or whether the money he absconded with was ever returned to its rightful owners!
     It is certain that by June 1900 George was firmly ensconced in Union Village; his occupation is shown as "painter" by the Federal Census enumerator. It is also certain that upon his arrival he made the acquaintance of Homer Hollcroft, a local farmer four years his junior, whose family lived on land either part of or adjoining that owned by the Shakers. Homer worked for the Shakers as a hired hand. The two men formed a deep and abiding friendship that flourished for the next twenty years and is detailed in a remarkable memento album that George created in 1920 and presented to Homer as a parting gift.
     George K.H. Baxter (he appears in contemporary records variously as "George Baxter", "George K.H. Baxter", "George K. Baxter" and "George H. Baxter" although the latter is the way in which he most often signed himself) was definitely not a person who "kept his light hidden under a bushel." Despite his apparent theft of Enfield's funds, he remained an Elder and was very involved in Church affairs. A letter written by him in July 1907 to Eldress Harriet Bullard [Western Reserve Historical Society archives] says that "about 8 months" previously, he had "tendered his resignation" as an Elder at Union Village but due to the "importuning of Elders Mary [Gass] and Andrew [Barrett]" he reconsidered, withdrew his resignation and decided to remain. The letter goes on to describe various strained relationships and internal conflicts between different people at Union Village, including George, James Fennessey, Clymena Miner, and others. The letter pleads with Eldress Bullard in the strongest terms for Canterbury to send sisters to Union Village to "work for the right." Shaker records show that several Sisters were in fact sent to Union Village in the years after George wrote the letter, and in fact those Sisters were among the very last members to leave Turtle Creek.
     George had a very active social life within and around the Shaker community as evidenced by notes in the Center Family Journal from 1908-1911. He is regularly noted as making special trips to nearby towns and cities for various reasons and functions, including extended Chautaqua gatherings in Dayton, attending the Barnum & Bailey circus, trips to observe military and aerial displays and representing the Union Village community at personal and public town events, as well as being a regular guest at dinner and card parties at local homes. When the Union Village Shakers acquired an automobile in 1910, George appears to have taken part in most of the resulting outings!
     George was not, however, universally appreciated by all at Union Village. One of his most implacable enemies was a man named Moore Mason. A collection of letters written from 1907—1909 by Mason to Prof. J. Maclean give a fascinating (though clearly biased) view of the internal politics at Union Village, pertaining to George Baxter and James Fennessey in particular. However, because Mason was so clearly in the "Fennessey Camp" it seems quite possible that many of the events were embellished for dramatic effect in the retelling. One example is a letter that accuses George Baxter of having "encouraged" and received "love letters of a sensual nature" from "A.G." (the most likely assumption is that this was meant to be Anna, daughter of Leopold Goepper). Obviously Mr. Mason chose to cast Anna's customary flowery language in the worst possible light as part of his continual quest to discredit George Baxter in whatever way possible. One wonders how, if the accusation is true, Moore Mason managed to get hold of and read these supposedly passionate missives! Another of Mason's letters describes in highly agitated and colorful language the arrival of Eldress Catherine Allen at Union Village, and also comments on a so-called "power struggle" between George Baxter and James Fennessey. [all letters from the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society]
     However, George himself was definitely no shrinking violet when it came to wielding a pen. In 1908 he privately published a small pamphlet-style book of original adages, proverbs and observations, entitled "A Cluster of Thought Flashes" through the Western Star Publishing Company. In 1914 he published a sequel by the same title, and in 1918 another booklet, "The Philosophy of a Recluse" (which seems an odd title, in view of George's constant involvement in affairs both in and out of Union Village!). The Warren County (Ohio) Historical Society has a copy of each in its holdings, donated by Donald Hollcroft, grandson of Homer.
It is these writings, as well as the Golden Floral Album of original verses he created for Homer Hollcroft, which provide such a fascinating glimpse into the personality and life of Shaker George K.H. Baxter. The first thing that struck me was that George seems rather more pragmatic than pious! He appears to had a fair measure of contempt for women, as well as the ability to be pithily critical of society while thoroughly enjoying those aspects he found appealing. The latter is seen far more clearly in the contents of the Album which of course was intended for his best friend's eyes only. But first, here are some excerpts from his public writings:

On religious philosophy:
     (from A Cluster of Thought Flashes, 1908)
- There must be self information before self reformation.
     - To those who question, what must they do to be saved,
     The answer is, in all things decently behave.
- Many Christians insult God by professing to be a product of God's work.

     (from The Philosophy of a Recluse, 1914)
- Most folks religion during the week is away junketing.

On society in general:
     (from A Cluster of Thought Flashes, 1908)
- It is right that we live our lives in our own way, but we should see that we trespass not on our neighbor's rights.
- Too much society breeds laments, headaches and clothing bills.
- The Mighty Dollar has the right of way with life and right.
- Society is composed largely of ears, tongues and tales.
- Society is a giving and receiving of essentials and nonessentials, the latter predominating.

On women: (all from The Philosophy of a Recluse):
- Women like in men what they themselves lack: complacency.
- A woman's love is kept aglow by tickling her vanity.
- I looked at a burnt match and thought how like matrimony: a golden glow and warmth, then smut and ashes.

On character traits of people:
     (from A Cluster of Thought Flashes, 1908)
- Most people behave themselves when company or work compels them.
- They who have small souls make the most fuss about others' short-comings.
- A person may be as honest as the day is long and still do a lot of cussed meanness.
- Many visions of seeming evil are but mirages of over-wrought imaginations.

     (from A Cluster of Thought Flashes, 1914)
What the mind dwells on will be objectified in life;
Mind moulds character of good or evil strife;
As bends the tree by the breezes blown,
So mortal is bent by what mind hath sown.

Now we turn to the very unique Golden Floral Album. The blank album was probably either acquired by or given to George at age 18, because he begins it by addressing his friend Homer Hollcroft (in December 1919):

This old album I have had fourty years,
Now I give it to thee:

then after several expressions of close friendship embarks upon "a stroll down Memory Lane" to recall many of their shared experiences during the past twenty years, of which these are only a randonly selected few:

Today I would be with you
But Christmas keeps us apart;
So I sit in my den and dream
Of our acrobatic larks.

….

The time in the O.F.-Home
Where we wash'd and rung our clothes;
You soaked me from head to feet
With that dum old rubber hose.

…..

And the many games of euchre
Play'd in your sitting-room
Which you won, easy as Harry
Who hunted for and found mushroom.

….

The times we've lay'd in the woods,
And felt the spirit of Bill Nye;
Trying to out-do each other
In compounding O K lies.

First-class lies that excelled stories
Of hunters and fishermen,
Of skin tighted theater gals,
And funny newspaper men.

…..

As you were "Jonnie-on-the-spot"
When you ran over the water tank,
Making those old Saints skip,
All innocent of your prank.

….

Yes, old top, we have had them,
Pleasures some of which I have pen'd;
And I would not exchange them
For the gospel of pulpit men.

….

So I'll not think of what might be
In the years that are to come
For I believe that each day we
Should reap wisdom, profit and fun.

Of such no one can have too much
In this world of pain and struggle.
And for one I intend to get
All the fun that I can snuggle.

….

And know that in the years to come,
When States will separate us,
I will sit in an old arm chair,
Think of thee and grin and bust.

I will fill tea cup to its brim,
And with each sip I will yell,
All hail, old pard, all hail,
I'll meet you in heaven or hell.

….

Though we are not angelic,
And have a few tiny faults,
We've not turned them into quarries
And at other folks thrown rocks.

We know we could be better,
Have a more spiritual hue;
Being human we don't condemn
Folks for doing what we do.

As this may be my last Christmas
In Ohio, sing cherubs near,
I wish you A Merry Christmas
And an extra good New Year.

These personal verses comprise approximately two-thirds of the album's 45 pages. The remaining pages are filled with original couplets and quatrains expressing George's personal views on life; some of the most intriguing are:

God don't want our prayers nor praise.
He wants us to do good unto others each day.
If God knows what is best to do,
He needs no petition from me or you.

Our experiences make us
Better or worse we all know.
The trouble with experience is,
In making good it's too dam slow.

All have the right to love what each one will,
Be it woman, man, child, or corn distilled.

George decorated many of the pages with colorful secular holiday stickers portraying wreaths, bells, candles, winter birds and Santa Claus. It was clearly a labor of love as his last Christmas gift to his dearest friend, and which he ends with this heartfelt sentiment on its final pages:

Ever my friend before church, book or art
Because I find such in his friendly heart,
So ever will my heart and pen commend
Before all things else my steadfast friend.

When liberty ceases to be liberty,
And water constitutes not the sea,
Then my friend I will forget thee
And what in past years thou did to me.

When I first began to research my great-granduncle and discovered through census records that he had lived at Union Village, I knew nothing about the Shakers or their way of life other than their connection with furniture and implements of the early 20th century. I had a vague notion that they were a rather austere religious group that adhered to strict behavioral guidelines, perhaps not dissimilar to the Amish. It was therefore quite a surprise to me to read many of the things by and about George, which brought his obviously complex character vividly to life for me and easily raised as many questions as they answered! I remain thoroughly puzzled over the episode of the missing Enfield funds, and the question of why George not only was allowed to remain a member of the Shakers afterward but to retain his status within the Church. The letters and journals detailing the interpersonal dynamics within Union Village were fascinating. But what amazes me most of all is the George Baxter who reveals himself so clearly in the Golden Floral Album. Here is a man who, especially from age 40 through 60, never lost the youthful capacity for enjoying life and the pleasures and treasures of a warm loving relationship while at the same time retaining a very practical and often cynical view of society, religion and other people in general. It has occurred to me more than once that George probably would have felt right at home during the 1960s: "Do your own thing."

During the 1919 holiday season George Baxter certainly knew that a major life change was imminent; Union Village had been steadily declining in population for quite a number of years. When on 1 March 1913 the premises were officially turned over to the United Brethren Church, George at age 51 was the youngest of the remaining fifteen Shakers (eight of them being over age 80). The Federal Census taken in February 1920 in West Turtle Creek shows a household of eight Shakers, of which George Baxter and James Fennessey were the only males. The others were Ellen Ross, Susannah Harmston, Eliza Jameson, Harriet Snyder, Hope Vickery, Marra Wilson, Lucy Hunt and Aida Elam. The women all subsequently returned to Canterbury Shaker Village and James Fennessey remained in Ohio. George, also, went back East and lived for a short time at the home of his oldest brother John Alfred Baxter in Wakefield. An undated paper discovered in 2006 within the Otterbein Home records indicates that sometime in 1920 "George Baxter, and also James Fennessey, received a monetary settlement from the Canterbury Shakers and officially severed relations with the Shakers". Another Otterbein entry states that "George H. Baxter's agreement was signed in Lebanon on 10 May 1920. He was to receive $50.00 per month for life." Unfortunately there are no surviving records yet discovered that show exactly where these payments were sent after George left Ohio, although much at Canterbury is not yet catalogued.

I am uncertain where George lived after 1920, but all evidence points to the vicinity of Lake Pleasant (near Montague), Massachusetts. There was a large Spiritualist community there, which may have been of interest to him although his name does not appear in any of their records; it may well be simply a coincidence that he settled there. His late father's second wife was living in that town in 1920, so George may possibly have moved in with her and/or arranged to remain in the house after her death in 1922. Unfortunately there are no City Directories for either Lake Pleasant or Montague at the time. But the existence of the $50/month stipend, possibly deposited with a local bank in some form of annuity/pension arrangement, explains how George was able to live on his own after leaving the Shakers without having to impose himself on any of his four surviving brothers.

Massachusetts Vital Records indicates that George K.H. Baxter died on 11 December 1924 at "Lake Pleasant, (Town of) Montague"; the cause of death was listed as heart disease. The death record indicates that he had been living there for four years, so it appears he moved there shortly after his return to Massachusetts in 1920. An obituary published in a Warren County, Ohio, newspaper mentions that George was a member of the Ford Hall Forum in Boston after his return East, so it appears that his interest in things both philosophical and secular remained strong. It must be assumed that he and Homer Hollcroft corresponded but sadly none of their letters have survived.

His brother John Baxter arranged for George to be interred in Lakeside Cemetery, Wakefield. It is interesting that George's gravesite, though unmarked, is directly across but separate from the Baxter family plot. The plot was purchased by John Baxter in 1905 upon the death of his wife Ella May Brooks with the intention that it would ultimately contain the graves of eleven of twelve family members… although, obviously, not that of George Kennard Hooper Baxter, the family's "Black Sheep" Shaker.

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to all those who so kindly and helpfully assisted in my quest to learn more about my great-granduncle George K.H. Baxter. These include Darryl Thompson, Jenna Carroll-Plante and Renee Fox of Canterbury Shaker Village, Mary Ann Haager of the Enfield Shaker Museum, the research staff at Western Reserve Historical Library, and of course Katherine Lollar Rowland who is the author of this website and probably has more knowledge of the Shaker community at Union Village than I could ever hope to acquire in a lifetime! It was she who discovered the existence of the George's writings and the Golden Floral Album in the holdings of the Warren County Historical Society's collection, and she was an inexhaustible font of advice and help throughout my research. My special thanks also go out to Mr. Donald Hollcroft, grandson of Homer. Mr. Hollcroft was the person who donated George Baxter's Golden Floral Album to the Society as well as the copies of the published works and and several undated photographs taken at Union Village; he has kindly given permission for their use. I am also sure that my great-granduncle George would be very happy to know that his thoughts and writings have been resurrected here via the miracle of 21st-century technology!

E.R.B.

Though sickness assail and make you sigh,
Don't complain.
In this world of toil, trials surround,
Disappointments will confound;
Have thy heart with cheerfulness abound.
Play the game.

- George K.H. Baxter, December 1919


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This page created 17 April 2007 and last updated 17 April, 2007
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