Putting Food By: Preserving the Harvest at Pleasant Hill

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

[1855] Wed. January 3 Today George Curds barn took fire and burnt up, together with all the wheat, corn, oats and hay he had, all the poor man could do was to go and lay down and cry and that is all any of us could do in such a case.” (Journal of James Levi Ballance, April 1, 1854 – March 31, 1860)

The ready availability of fresh food in any season is something that most modern Americans take for granted. Strawberries in January? Of course, let’s head to the grocery! As the quote that opens this essay reveals, such comfort in food choice and food security is something that is relatively new to the human experience. For the Pleasant Hill Shakers, the necessity of preparing for the coming winter was an onerous task that hung over their heads nearly as soon as the yearly calendar turned to spring.

Apple Jelly Label from Pleasant Hill. In 1853 it was noted that Pleasant Hill grew 50 varieties of apples!

As such, food production and preservation was a year-round task for the Shakers. In order to ensure that food was available to community members, particularly during the winter months, food preservation required contributions from the whole community.

While fruit preservation took place throughout the summer months and into the fall, the fall harvest was an important time for “putting food by” for the winter.

When the Shakers preserved foods, they were prolonging their shelf life to ensure they lasted as long as possible. Some food preservation methods, like canning, required the Shakers to transform the fruits and vegetables, while others like cellaring, required certain storage conditions. All of these methods were important in ensuring the Shakers had enough food to last through the winter until the next growing season.

Although it required a great deal of effort, throughout the 19th century the Shakers became renowned for their skill in preserving food, and in many years they made a tidy profit by selling the excess that they did not need. In 1880, the Albany Evening News spoke directly to this fame: “[Shaker] applesauce and preserves are household words, which involuntarily cause the mouth to water and the mind to teem with recollections of surreptitious feeds of jam in childhood’s hungry days.” It still makes the mouth water!

Not only were the Shakers known for the quality of their preserved food, many visitors also commented on the specialty structures such as the Meat Houses, Smoke Houses, Ice Houses, and more, that the Shakers constructed at Pleasant Hill. Food preservation, it turns out, significantly influenced the built environment at Pleasant Hill in unexpected and interesting ways.

Centre Family Smoke House after the time of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, 1940.
Brick smokehouses were rare, and were plagued by salt used in the curing process.

Perhaps most shockingly, some of these specialty buildings became the targets of thieves from within the community! In March of 1885, Shaker brother Henry Daily commented that he “put 2 locks on C.F. Smoke house door A.M. We have to change lock very often on this door as we have some desperate thieves living among us.  They got some keys somehow or other & get in and steal meat….This is the kind of Shakers we have now days.”

Come and join us at Shaker Village this fall, as we uncover more stories of intrigue, tension and conflict involving food at Pleasant Hill! Oh, and did I mention that we are tasting apple butter? You won’t be disappointed!

Putting Food By: Preserving the Harvest is a daily program that begins at 3:30pm every day through November.

Rocking Our World

William Updike, Vice President of Natural and Cultural Resources

Shaker Village has over 25 miles of historic rock fence along its boundary and within its 3,000 acre property. This fence was originally constructed, primarily, in the 1840s. The Shakers of Pleasant Hill paid a rate of $1,000 per mile to non-Shaker masons who built over 40 miles of rock fence. Standing without the assistance of mortar or other bonding agents, well-built dry-stacked rock fences can last hundreds of years!

Dry-stacked rock fence along Old Highway 68 at Shaker Village.

Even though these fences are built to last, fence failures or “breaks” can still be caused by many factors. Sometimes trees fall across them, tree roots up-heave the fences from below, heavy rains can soften the earth and wash-out sections, livestock or other animals rub against the fences and in winter the freezing and thawing of the earth cause movement in the stone.

Our team is constantly at work repairing these rock walls. This year alone, we have repaired 20 sections, measuring 136 feet of wall! In the last five years we repaired 245 sections measuring over 2000 feet!

Our efforts have focused on the most highly visible fences around the Village. We recognize that with so many miles of fence there are sections we haven’t gotten to yet, and with all the rain we have had over the last couple years it seems like there are new breaks occurring regularly!

Wondering how can you help? This fall we are partnering with the Dry Stone Conservancy to hold a workshop on repairing and maintaining rock fence. The workshop will be held October 19 and 20 here at Shaker Village!

Want to take part in the workshop, or learn about the Dry Stone Conservancy?Click here for more information!

We are also happy to accept donations toward maintaining these important features of our landscape!

Going Batty!

Ben Leffew, Preserve Manager
Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager

Bats are an integral, but often overlooked and always misunderstood, part of our ecosystem. These small flying mammals eat their body weight in insects every night, making them great at controlling pests and reducing the spread of pathogens like West Nile and Zika. The big brown bat, the largest species caught in The Preserve, eats up to 4,000 mosquitoes each night!

A Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)

In early July, a private contractor surveyed The Preserve’s bat population by setting up 30 foot tall nets across various parts of our trails and creeks. We set up three nets every night, checking each of them every ten minutes between sunset and 2:00 a.m. In five days of netting we caught over 50 individuals representing five different species:

  1. Big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) – one of the largest and most common species in Kentucky, associated with man-made structures.
  2. Red bat (Lasiurus borealis) – a common, forest-dwelling species, roosting in trees instead of caves.
  3. Gray bat (Myotis grisescens) – listed as a threatened species in Kentucky and an endangered species federally, this cave-dwelling species migrates between breeding caves in the summer and hibernation caves in the winter.
  4. Small-footed bat (Myotis leibii) – a tiny, state threatened species, associated with cliffs.
  5. Evening bat (Nycticeius humeralis) – listed as a species of ‘special concern’ in Kentucky, primarily roosting in trees.

Interestingly, our most endangered species was the most commonly caught – over 40% of our caught bats were gray bats!

A Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans) who found its way into our “bat net!”

Up next for the Preserve Team is migration songbird banding. This helps us determine which bird species utilize our habitat as a refueling station for their trip south of the border for winter. To ensure the health of the birds, this event is not open to the public. Don’t worry, we take lots of pictures to share!

A Spiritual Stroll at Shaker Village

Jacob Glover, PhD. Program Manager

“Thousands of holy Angels attended this meeting, with whom was the Prophets Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel and others of the prophets and they freely poured out the rich treasures of heaven upon our needy souls…” – Pleasant Hill “Spiritual Journal,” September 9, 1847

“Are there ghosts here? Is Shaker Village Haunted? Come on, I know it’s haunted…”

The question of whether or not the buildings and grounds of Pleasant Hill are “haunted” is a consistent topic of debate bandied about among the out-of-towners, locals, employees and Shaker enthusiasts who frequent Shaker Village. Unsurprisingly, it is something that elicits a strong response from both skeptics and believers, each side convinced the other has on blinders that keep them from seeing the “truth.” So, is Shaker Village haunted? Well, that’s a tougher question to answer than you might initially think…

Guests carry lanterns while guided by Shaker Village staff on a Spirit Stroll.

Before we go any further, I should make something abundantly clear: the Spirit Stroll tour is NOT a “ghost tour” or a “haunted tour” of Shaker Village. It is, rather, a family-friendly program that involves a walk down the Turnpike by lantern light. That walk begins at the Trustees’ Office and concludes at the Shaker Cemetery, and along the way we delve into some of the darker and more macabre moments in Pleasant Hill’s history.

For despite its idyllic, rural setting in the 21st century, Pleasant Hill certainly experienced trying episodes during the time of the Shakers. There were accidents and maimings, premature deaths and catastrophic building loss, sickness and debilitation, and even suicides that racked the community. For a people who had set out to create “Heaven on Earth,” these setbacks presented a great deal of consternation and anxiety.

The Shaker Cemetery at Pleasant Hill was established in 1811.

One of the ways the Shakers confronted these difficult situations was through communication with the spiritual world. As the quote that opens this post reminds us, the Shakers were in regular “communication” with spiritual visitors as part of their worship, and these spirits often bestowed encouragement and reassurance to living Shakers to keep up the good fight and persevere through life’s struggles. For the Pleasant Hill Shakers, quite obviously, the spiritual realm was very active for decades and played an important role in their lives.

So, do spirits or “ghosts” still roam around Pleasant Hill? I guess you will have to come and find out for yourself!

Spirit Strolls at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill begin at 5:30 pm and 7:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights in September and October, beginning September 6.

The Photo Within a Photo

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

While recently going through some boxes in the library, I came across this really interesting item in a folder.

It is a photo of an elderly William Pennebaker (a Pleasant Hill Shaker) standing on the stone walk in front of the Old Stone Shop (you can see the Farm Deacon’s Shop looming in the background) alongside Letcher Mathews, who was a caretaker/housekeeper for Pennebaker in his later years.

It has also been hand-colored, a popular process employed to make black-and-white images more “realistic” by adding color using a variety of mediums like dyes, watercolors, oil paint, crayons, and pastels. I’ll let you decide how realistic this one looks – if you ask me though, they didn’t do William any favors. I can’t be certain on the date of the photo, but William Pennebaker died in 1922, so my guess is that it isn’t too far off from that year.

As I was looking at the image, I became interested in the item that Letcher Mathews is holding in her hands. A high-resolution scan was helpful in getting a close-up view of what appears to be a photograph. And as I looked at it, I realized that I had seen this photo before.

From what I can tell, this could be a studio photograph of William Pennebaker that is currently in the collection of the Winterthur Musuem (which has a pretty considerable Shaker collection). Here’s a side-by-side comparison of these images – what do you think?

The original photo indicates that it was taken in a studio in Washington, D.C., but there’s not really any other information about it. Nor is there much record of why he visited D.C., or how often, though I’ve found one reference to it in the surviving journals. So this is an area ripe for further research!

Beyond that, I’m trying to imagine what the conversation sounded like as they looked over this photo of William in his younger days. If anyone gets inspired, send us your best caption idea for the hand-colored photo!

agenton@shakervillageky.org