Museums have been trying to offer interactive and engaging activities for visitors in hopes of shaking their sometimes stuffy reputation among the digital hungry generation coming of age in the 21st century. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis takes us to a place where things are most definitely hands on, but it’s simply a replica of how things have been done for centuries.
Curator Lesley Herzberg welcomes a Baby Animals tour group to the Hancock Shaker Village on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Massachusetts with one specific item on her mind.
“Well, welcome to everyone if you’re new or returning,” Herzberg said. It’s a lot of fun. You’re going to meet Billy, our farmer. Make sure to shake Billy’s hand because if you’ve ever wanted to meet the real deal, the farmer, that’s Billy.”
And in moments the group meets the real deal, farm director Billy Mangiardi. With baby lambs following his every step, Mangiardi uses his large, calloused hands to show the kids how to hold chickens just days old.
“What I’d like you to do is be real gentle,” Mangiardi says. “Don’t grab them. Cup them nice here. Let their head sit out. If you put one hand on and one down, now make sure you don’t drop it, honey, because it will hit the ground. So be careful. These aren’t play toys. They are animals and this is a working farm.”
The group of about 20 mostly kids with their parents sit on hay bales lining the sides of a wagon pulled by a John Deere tractor around the village’s 20-odd buildings. Museum staff explain what purpose each structure, mostly restored originals, served for the 300 Shakers who lived in the self-sustaining village after settling there in the 1780s. After a short ride, Mangiardi nonchalantly grabs a panel of honey out of an area swarming with bees and brings it to the group.
Eventually a volunteer comes forward to hold the panel so everyone can have a taste.
Hopping into the pen with a crew of animals, Mangiardi lets the folks feed milk to calf, pet a turkey and hold a baby pig before delving into a tale about saving a baby goat who had a rough entry into this world.
“He was gone by the time I got him out,” Mangiardi says. “But you see, I know CPR and I’ve done it a few times. So I give him a couple quick puffs, we hang them upside down, give a little chest compression and next thing you know…he’s running around beautiful. Look at him.”
And for a real hands-on experience, Mangiardi shows people how to milk a goat, even spraying some bystanders.
Throughout the fun Mangiardi explains how the farm operates using things like compost to fertilize its gardens and heat its greenhouses. The final stop on the tour is the 1826 Round Stone Barn. The circular structure offers ground level access on three floors where the Shakers housed more than 50 dairy cows.
“Outside that door there’s a fire hydrant,” Mangiardi explains. “Two hundred years ago they had their own water system. I still use it today. They have a reservoir across the road on [Route 20] holds about 3.5 million gallons.”
But first on Mangiardi’s mind is making sure everyone is having a good time – the young, the old and the pesky reporter who Mangiardi thought needed to hold a pig instead of a microphone.
A self-proclaimed old-time farmer, the 56-year-old Mangiardi has been doing this kind of work his whole life, the last decade at Hancock Shaker Village.
“It’s a way of life,” Mangiardi says. “If you don’t like it there’s really not a lot of money in farming. You got to love it once it gets into your blood. There’s a lot of work and you become connected with it. Next day starts, you got to do it over again.”
The village’s head gardener Georgia Barberi says work for the Shakers was an extension of their faith.
“Instead of planting corn to maximize profits, have a better crop than your neighbor or whatever it is that motivates a farmer, their [Shaker’s] motivation was grow the corn in the most beautiful, elegant and proper way you can grow corn as a form of prayer essentially,” said Barberi.
And maybe the same is true for Mangiardi.
“My favorite saying is ‘All is well on a farm,’” says Mangiardi.