“…the Department for the Sick…”

Jacob Glover, PhD. Program Manager

“…We visited the department for the sick which was under the charge of Jane Ryan.…The infirmary is in the dwelling house & adjoining the meeting room.” – Henry C. Blinn, “A Journey to Kentucky in the Year 1873”

Henry Blinn’s description of the infirmary in the Centre Family Dwelling at Pleasant Hill is a reminder of some of the unique healthcare challenges (and opportunities) that confronted the Shakers in nineteenth century America.

On one hand, as a concentrated community with members who lived in close proximity they were more subject to the quick spread of epidemic illness. On the other hand, however, Pleasant Hill also had members with medical training, and the village grew many of their own medicinal plants.

At different points in the history of Pleasant Hill, the Shakers in the community relied on healthcare provided by both Shakers, and non-Shakers. In this image, standing from left to right, are Dr. William Pennebaker, Francis Pennebaker (dentist) and a non-Shaker medical doctor. C. Late 19th Century.
Elizabeth Downing was one of many Shaker sisters who served as nurses at Pleasant Hill. According to Shaker rules, caregivers could only treat members of the same gender, although it is unclear if this dictate was always strictly followed.

In addition to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as the measles and cholera, Pleasant Hill also met the same healthcare challenges as all Americans of their day and age. Although many of the treatments provided during the nineteenth century would later prove to be ineffective (if not downright harmful), Pleasant Hill’s trained healthcare staff was vitally important to the overall well-being of the community.

Although hardly the only caregivers at Pleasant Hill, we wanted to highlight the following individuals and share some snippets of their stories.

The Downing Sisters

Three natural sisters who arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1840 as children all later served as nurses at Pleasant Hill. Their names were Eldress Elizabeth Ann Downing, Mary Ann Downing, and Rachel Downing. Although Rachel left the community in 1863, both Elizabeth Ann and Mary Ann remained faithful for the rest of their lives. In addition to serving as a nurse, Elizabeth was also a caretaker of children and worked in the preserve industry.

Dr. John Shain

Shain was an early Shaker convert who served as a physician at Pleasant Hill for 35 years. He promoted healthy eating and a vegetarian lifestyle. Shain was critical of doctors who practiced “heroic” medicine, and he spoke out against calomel, describing the popular mercury-based medicine as poison. Shain lived until the age of 91, and advocated drinking only ice water until the very end.

Dr. William Pennebaker spent nearly his entire life as a member of the Pleasant Hill community. Upon his death, he deeded a portion of the remaining Shaker property to open a school to provide education for underprivileged girls.

Dr. William F. Pennebaker

Pennebaker arrived at Pleasant Hill as a child in 1849. After expressing an interest in medicine, the Shakers reportedly sent him to Cincinnati for medical and surgical training. Pennebaker authored several nationally published medical articles, and in 1876 he became chief physician at Pleasant Hill. During this time, Pennebaker used his training to care for the community when an influenza epidemic swept through the village in 1892.

Writing to the Shakers’ magazine the Manifesto after the aforementioned influenza epidemic in 1892, Sister Mary Settles gratefully noted “our kind physician and brother, W. F. Pennebaker, has safely carried many patients through La Grippe as well as other ills. We feel thankful that so many of our aged ones have been spared to us.”

Pennebaker served his brethren and sisters faithfully until non-Shaker Dr. J. B. Robards and his wife took over care of the elderly members of the Centre Family in December 1910.

A Night of Terror

Jacob Glover, PhD. Program Manager

“About midnight last night, a band of mounted highway robbers, 6 in number, entered our quiet village, armed to the teeth, & proceeding to the Post Office…” – April 29, 1865

Traditional accounts of the American Civil War often end on April 9, 1865. On that famous date, of course, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

The violence unleashed by the war, however, could not be stopped by a formal surrender. In the months following the war in Kentucky, guerilla bands and outlaws held sway in many areas of the Commonwealth. Although the freedmen and their families were often the targets of these vigilante groups, on other occasions the Shakers at Pleasant Hill drew their attention.

On the night of April 29, 1865, that is exactly what happened. The lengthy journal entry below gives an idea as to the desperate situation in which the Shakers found themselves.

Pictured here, late in his life, J.R. Bryant was in charge of the Village’s finances, and a target of outlaws on the night of April 29, 1865. Bryant raised the alarm at the Centre Family and saved the community a great deal of harm.
Photo c. 1870s.

“April 29, 1865. About midnight last night, a band of mounted highway robbers, 6 in number, entered our quiet village, armed to the teeth, & proceeding to the Post Office… Every apartment in the house was forced open in a vain search for pelf; & being providentially disappointed in their booty, which did not exceed 30 dollars, they sallied forth, & surrounded the brick Office, the leader of the band giving orders to take Bryant the Trustee, dead or alive – to force him to deliver the contents of his coffers – when they demanded entrance, & commenced battering at the front door & smashed in a window, cursing & threatening vengeance. Meantime J. R. Bryant escaped at a back door, leaving M. Burnett & 3 or 4 sisters the only occupants, & gave the alarm at the Center Family, but being discovered by the sentinels, was fired on several times by these foul fiends in human shape, yet, by the protecting hand of God, escaped unhurt.

Looking down the Turnpike, the Post Office is the small building to the left of the large Trustee’s Office. Although the bandits initially forced their way into the Post Office, they later turned their attention to the Trustee’s Office and the person of J.R. Bryant. Photo c. late 1800s.

When some of the brethren arrived at the scene of the action, they were halted & threatened with immediate death by these demons, if they approached. The alarm was then rang which aroused the whole village in a state of excited alarm which so frightened these fiends incarnate, that they fled to their horses & beat a hasty retreat, firing a volley at every moving object & some of the buildings as they went. One ball passed through the side glass of the front door of the Office, & through the sash over the door at the far end of the hall, glancing the ceiling penetrating the dining room door at the extreme end of the porch… No clue to the diabolical traitors.”

Although no one was physically hurt, I can’t help but wonder what must have been going through the minds of the pacifist Shakers during this eventful and terrifying night. Such terror was not representative of life at Pleasant Hill throughout the nineteenth century, but the trying times of the Civil War seem to have left an impression everywhere.

Mother Ann’s Mission: Calling and Controversy

Rebekah Roberts, Program Specialist

Women in the 1700s were often considered the possessions and servants of men, but Ann Lee violated social norms, becoming one of only ten female preachers identified in the United States before 1800. As leader of the Shaker movement, she proclaimed a dual-natured Father and Mother God as a basis for gender equality.

Manchester, England c. 1750

Born February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee began working twelve-hour shifts in a textile mill as a child. She never attended school, and remained illiterate her entire life. The second-oldest of eight children, Ann Lee played a vital role in raising her younger siblings and ultimately watched her mother die in childbirth.

An unflattering drawing of Ann Lee from “The Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy 1865-1873”

Ann Lee was active in a group called the “Shaking Quakers” when she was forced to marry. She protested this act by never assuming her husband’s surname. She detested the concept of intercourse from a young age, and the inability to avoid the dangers of childbirth. She barely survived the birth of her four children, three of whom died in infancy, and a daughter who passed at age six. Ann Lee believed that these traumatic experiences were God’s judgement and responded with a vow of celibacy, turning away from sex and all other worldly desires.

Ann Lee took her message to the streets, proselytizing in public spaces and interrupting church services, which resulted in her repeated incarceration. While imprisoned, she envisioned God directing an escape from religious persecution in the New World. She rallied eight followers and they settled in New York in 1774 amidst the burgeoning American Revolution.

The Vankleek House in Poughkeepsie, NY, where Ann Lee was lodged for a night prior to being sent to the Poughkeepsie Jail, in 1776. Image from “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” by Benson John Lossing, 1851.

In 1781, Ann Lee left with two disciples on a missionary journey throughout New England. In opposition to the traditional church, she rejected written creeds in favor of reflection and ongoing revelation. Ann Lee was described as direct but nurturing, like a mother, and developed personal relationships with followers, referred to as her children.

Mother Ann was arrested and accused of being an enemy of the patriots. She was thought to be a man in disguise, or a witch, and was dragged from her bed and beaten. Public meetings included converts who confessed their sins to Mother Ann, alongside mobs organized by churches and ruffians alike, who drove the Shakers out of towns. Everywhere she traveled, Mother Ann attracted an audience.

Ann Lee’s grave site, Watervliet, NY.

Mother Ann’s message was simple: Forsake all worldly pleasures and find salvation in the Father and the Mother. This message captivated women of the 18th century. Women had no body autonomy in marriage, nor assured choice in husband. Monetary earnings from a job went to the husband, and women had no legal shelter from abuse, nor right to her children if the husband left. Women could not purchase land.

The radical commune celebrating a dual-natured God embodied independence for 18th century women, who had the opportunity to live as equals in Shaker society.

In 1784, the local newspaper published the death of “Ms. Lee, known by the appellation of the Elect Lady, or Mother Zion, and the head of that people called Shakers.”

The Shaker Guest House

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“It was something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner.” – Dick DeCamp, late 1950s

The Trustees’ Office is one of the most well-known buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. In fact, it’s the building guests most often ask for when they first arrive at our property—and for good reason, our restaurant, The Trustees’ Table, is located inside!

Alongside the restaurant, visitors are also often amazed by the twin spiral staircases that run from the first to the third floor. Constructed by Shaker brother Micajah Burnett, the stairs are so iconic that they are likely some of the most photographed elements of Shaker architecture in America.

Looking down from the third floor of the Trustees’ Office. The mesmerizing effect of the spiral stairs have amazed guests for over 180 years!

These highlights, despite their importance, are only a fraction of the story of the Trustees’ Office itself. For in the story of the Trustees’ Office we can see the rise and fall of Pleasant Hill – and the emergence of Shaker Village…

Built in 1839, the Trustees’ Office today is used in a similar way to how the Shakers would have used the space. It’s a place where food can be acquired, lodging obtained and business conducted. In other words, it was meant to be a building where designated members of the Shaker community (the Trustees) interacted with people from the outside world.

Because it was meant to be a public building, the Trustees’ Office looks quite different from all other structures at Shaker Village. Instead of relying on traditional Shaker designs, Micajah Burnett modeled the Trustees’ Office after public buildings in Lexington and Frankfort. Indeed, with its Flemish bond brickwork and tidy cupola it is a great example of Federal style architecture from the early 1800s!

The 1839 Trustees’ Office today.

As Pleasant Hill prospered in the mid-19th century, the Trustees’ Office remained a hub that attracted visitors and other folks with business connections to the Shaker community. By the 1890s, however, Pleasant Hill’s decline was made manifest when they were forced to sell the Trustees’ Office and an additional 766 acres to John B. Castleman of Louisville to settle a particularly large debt.

The Trustees’ Office was operated as the Shaker Village Guest House (by non-Shakers) for a while. Although the last Shaker passed away at Pleasant Hill in 1923, by the mid-20th century the Trustees’ Office then served as a restaurant owned and operated by Bettye and Robert Renfrew. Dick DeCamp, whose quote opens this blog, remembered the restaurant as a place where guests would “kill a bottle of whiskey” on the steps before going inside to eat.

Circa 1960s. The Trustees’ Office served as the Shaker Guest House with various proprietors from the 1920s to the 1950s. When restoration efforts began in the 1960s, the building was operating as a restaurant. Many rooms were left open for guests to explore, and as you can see, some did more than that!

The Trustees’ Office is also indelibly linked with the beginnings of the non-profit Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill that still preserves the property today—it was the first building purchased in the early 1960s and a crucial step in the restoration that took place throughout nearly two decades!

Today, the Trustees’ Office has modern amenities: electricity, forced air (heating and cooling), and indoor bathrooms. The building did not have these things in the 19th century, but if the Shakers had lasted any longer at this community than what they did, they definitely would have adapted with the times and had those ‘necessities’ installed.

Visit Shaker Village throughout the year to explore the intricacies of the Trustees’ Office, or join a special Behind Closed Door program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February to learn more about the unique history of this building. Check the daily schedule for exact tour time!

Swept Away

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“These people are rich and getting richer. Contrast a Shaker broom with a penitentiary contract-labor broom. One sweeps and the other raises dust…” – “Shaker Socialism Good,” Salt Lake (UT) Herald, June 21, 1896

A flat broom press holds the bound broomcorn in a flattened position so the broom may be tied into its permanent shape.

Over the years, the Shakers and brooms have become somewhat synonymous. In many ways this makes sense: broom making was widespread in Shakerdom, and nearly all Shaker communities made brooms for use within their villages and to sell to the outside world. Just how many were made? At Pleasant Hill, for instance, Brother Francis Monfort reportedly made 25,000 broom handles in 1859 alone!

Beyond the common association of brooms with the Shakers, however, what’s the real story about the importance of brooms to the Shakers and their lifestyle? It might surprise you…

Before we go any further, we should get something out of the way. Despite the enduring legacy of this particular myth, the Shakers did not invent the flat broom. They did, however, create a flat broom press that greatly facilitated the process of making these brooms.

Begun at Watervliet, New York, in 1798, the Shaker broom industry quickly became one of the most important economic lifelines for Shaker communities across America. By the 1840s, Pleasant Hill had planted nearly 60 acres of broomcorn on their property, and they were turning out thousands of brooms each year for sale to towns and cities near and far. For most of the rest of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill found a ready market for their brooms that continued to sell for between $2 and $3 per dozen.

The interior of a broom shop at Pleasant Hill in the late 19th century. This could possibly be inside the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop – today’s Welcome Center! c. 1880-1900

Like many other Shaker-made products, there also developed a fascination with the superior quality of Shaker brooms. The quote that opens this blog post is only one of many testimonials to Shaker quality. Consider this clipping from a New York newspaper in 1842: “The Shakers for a long time almost monopolized the raising of the [broom] corn and the manufacture of brooms which…were always of a superior quality.”

An association with the Shakers, even a lapsed one, could also carry weight with consumers. One Pleasant Hill Shaker who left the community opened a broom store in Richmond, Kentucky, and resorted to a unique marketing approach: “The Shakers do certainly know how to make brooms. Mr. Spencer, being an ex-Shaker, will make you an ‘ex-Shaker broom.’ When you buy a broom, be certain it is an ‘ex-Shaker’ and then you’ll know you have got the best.”

Lars Ericson ran the broom operation at Pleasant Hill in the latter part of the 19th century. The large cylinder to the right of Ericson was used to clean broom corn prior to its use in brooms. c. 1880-1900

Although indelibly linked to Shaker economics, brooms can also be seen as a symbolic of several important Shaker ideals. After all, cleanliness was far from the demands of rogue, overzealous Shaker leaders—it was a spiritual and moral imperative that came from none other than Mother Ann Lee. “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt,” she is supposed to have famously quipped!

As it often turns out with history, what you think you know is only the beginning!

Want to learn even more about the Shaker broom industry? Come out and join our Swept Away: Shaker Innovations program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. Check the daily schedule for tour times!

Want to go a bit more in-depth? Every fall, Shaker Village offers broom making workshops where you make your own hand-tied brooms and take part in this traditional craft! Check our event calendar to learn about these exciting opportunities!