A Story to Tell

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

Last month we told you about a new exhibit being developed at Shaker Village. When it opens this summer, Local Economies, Global Impacts will highlight the industries and economy of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. More importantly, visitors to this exhibit will leave inspired to think about their own local economy, the industries that fuel it and their role in a global market. Well…those are our goals at least!

Lofty Goals

So, when designing an exhibit at Shaker Village, what are some of the typical goals we have in mind? In the simplest terms, our main goals are to:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

This month I’d like to explore the first goal on this list: Tell a Meaningful Story.

What’s the BIG IDEA

What is the story we are trying to tell, and how does it fit into the big picture?

Fortunately, at Shaker Village, we have a solid starting point to our Village-Wide Interpretive Plan. THE BIG IDEA!

The Big Idea and related sub-themes give us guidance for all the different topics we consider for inclusion in our exhibit plans. In the case of Local Economies, Global Impacts an argument could be made that this topic fits all four sub-themes!

Finding a Focus

Once we’ve established that a topic fits our themes, we’re ready to take the next step: content development.

We begin with a brainstorming session. For this project the Shaker Village Exhibit Team was joined by additional Shaker scholars Dr. Carol Medlicott and Christian Goodwillie and our design partners, The Design Minds.

This is the stage where we narrow our focus. We consider all the angles, perspectives and stories that should be told related to the topic. For Local Economies, Global Impacts the challenge was to boil down a very broad topic into content that would fit on the first floors of two small Shaker workshops. Which industries should we include? What individual Shakers are the best to highlight? How do we most succinctly describe and share the business practices of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill?

Coming out of this meeting we are ready to assign topics for research.

Developing a Base

A scanned page from the 1850 agricultural census at Pleasant Hill.

Only a small percentage of the information gathered during the research stage actually makes its way into an exhibit at Shaker Village. It is, however, incredibly important to have a large base of research. This research gives context and depth to the information you do choose to present. It also provides accessible support material for interpretive staff to increase their knowledge of a subject that visitors will surely be asking them about!

For Local Economies, Global Impacts, short research papers were prepared on seven topics, ranging from sorghum production at Pleasant Hill to Shaker trading routes and markets. Profiles were written on a dozen selected Shakers. Agricultural and manufacturing records from the 19th century were compiled and transcribed. From this mass of content, we cull the components that are to become part of the exhibition.

Material Culture

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill cares for over 4,000 objects related to the Shaker experience. Each of these objects can add immense value and meaning to the story behind an exhibit, if placed wisely. During the research stage for a new exhibit our Curator of Collections, Becky Soules, partners with the other members of the Exhibit Team to compile a first draft of all the artifacts, archival materials and photographs that may be relevant to the exhibition.

As this list is compiled, Becky adds notes to reflect size, condition, related artifacts and other considerations for public display. When we enter the design stage, a final list of recommended material objects and images is created for the exhibit. This list is then presented to a sub-committee of Shaker Village’s Board of Trustees for final approval before public use.

Feeling the Flow

Now that we have the content selected to tell our meaningful story, we need to determine in what sequence to present it. The order that a visitor approaches each image, artifact and piece of information greatly impacts their ability to both understand and connect to the exhibit.


Using floor plans for each exhibit space, we lay out “bubble designs.” These simple designs give us an idea of how visitors will enter each room, and in what sequence they will encounter each aspect of the exhibit. The team REALLY digs in to this phase of the process, because it has an incredible bearing on what the final exhibit will come out to be. We discuss, we debate, we pull out our measuring tapes, we cry, we cajole, we measure some more, and finally…we are satisfied that we will be presenting a meaningful story!

An early “bubble design” for the East Family Brethren’s Shop.

Next Month: Learn how Local Economies, Global Impacts will use a variety of engaging methods to connect with different audiences at Shaker Village!

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

An Enduring Legacy

Jacob Glover, Ph.D., Director of Public Programs and Education

“Great architecture has this capacity to adapt to changing functional uses without losing one bit of its dignity or one bit of its original intention.

– Thomas Krens, former Director of the Guggenheim

As we approach the end of October and the 200th anniversary of the Pleasant Hill Meeting House, we have taken the opportunity to reflect on the both the history of the Meeting House and its continuing legacy and influence here at Shaker Village. As the quote that opens this blog post implies, the Meeting House has been remarkably resilient throughout the course of its existence and its many alterations since 1820.

When thinking about the original intention of the Meeting House for the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, it is important to keep in mind how the space was purpose-built to allow certain aspects of Shaker society to flourish. For the Shakers, the Meeting House was always about things such as unity, community, and faith. Of course, the Shakers’ religious beliefs influenced all aspects of their life, but the common worship area of the Meeting House was an extremely important physical space where the Shakers could gather on a weekly basis and reinforce communal ties, a shared sense of belonging, and strengthen their union with one another.

Special community events such as Illuminated Evenings, held on Saturdays in December, help continue the legacy of song that has long shaped the history of the Pleasant Hill Meeting House.

Given the important of these notions to the entire Shaker worldview, it is no wonder that the Meeting House held such a place of prominence in every community. When Shaker brothers and sisters danced and sang with each other, they cemented bonds that not only held together the community at Pleasant Hill — these actions provided a shared identity for Shakers all across America who danced the same dances and sang the same songs in similar buildings from Maine to Ohio.

The materials used to construct the Meeting House tie the building to centuries of history in central Kentucky. These trusses, seen in the attic, allow for the open space on the first floor that were key to Shaker worship.

At Shaker Village today, the Meeting House retains much of its original charm and capacity to inspire, even if the form and shape of that inspiration holds different meanings for us than it did for the Shakers. The sense of belonging and togetherness that was so important to the Shakers remains present in our daily Shaker music programs and special events like the Community Sing and Illuminated Evenings, as building community through song is still as strong an influence as ever.

The solidity and permanence of the Meeting House is also reminder of the power of place in a modern world that seems to become more transient and transparent by the day. Walking in the attic, the massive king posts and trusses are reminders of the ancient forests of central Kentucky and the long years that the oak trees graced the Bluegrass before they were hewed by the Shakers to build such a lasting testament to their architectural skills and their faith.

At Pleasant Hill, we remain as committed as ever to inspiring our local communities and state by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers, and the Meeting House will continue to be an integral part of that mission for our organization.

Join us at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill on Saturday, October 31, 2020, for the 200th Anniversary celebration of the Meeting House. Special tours of the Meeting House focusing on Shaker song, dance and the building’s architecture will be available with purchase of admission.

Curses and Serendipity: Artifact Homecomings

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Warning The following post shares the stories of historic artifacts that have, in the past, “disappeared” from Shaker Village and returned in unusual ways. The management of Shaker Village would like our readers to know that we have excellent security and oversight of our artifacts!

Howdy, everyone! Welcome back to another installment of my dispatches from the SVPH archival digitization project.

As many of you know, there is a lot of information we can glean from closely observing an object or artifact; but in most cases, this can’t tell us everything we want to know about it. That’s where our object files come in! When our digital catalog goes live, you will of course see photographs, descriptions, and measurements of the objects. You will also often see:

  • Cross-references to related items (such as library holdings, archival documents, photographs, and even other objects),
  • Examination notes by experts in a relevant field,
  • Publications or exhibits that mentioned or featured the object, and/or
  • Information that accompanied the object on its journey to our institution.
Black and white photograph of white oak basket, taken soon after being accessioned.

While checking over these entries, I have found many interesting and informative notes. I have also found several that are entertaining as all get-out. Guess what? Sometimes an object’s story doesn’t end at our threshold! So far, I’ve found at least two artifacts that have “wandered” a little further from home than they should have.

First is this basket (accession # 67.4.4), which first came to the village as a donation in 1967. Sometime in the 1970s-80s, it, ahem, “walked off.” This note explains how it found its way home in 2003:

“The sender had visited Pleasant Hill 12/18/2003 and told how she had ‘met a 92-year-old lady at a garage sale, who said a man who lived in her house for years; was in possession of this basket which apparently belongs to you—and she asked me if I’d return it to you.”

A roundabout journey, but effective! Of course, it begs the question of how the 92-year-old woman’s tenant acquired the basket in the first place, doesn’t it?

This bench has a 1 ½-inch-thick seat, constructed of a single piece of wood. Impressive!

Second is this bench (accession # 61.4.386), which was part of the initial Pleasant Hill property purchase in 1961—meaning it’s been a fixture of our organization from the beginning. Pre-restoration photos show it living in the Trustee’s Office; post-restoration, it resided in the Carpenter’s Shop (currently our Welcome Center). However, in the mid-1970s, it…you guessed it, “walked off.”

Photograph depicting the bench in the 1839 Trustees’ Office, pre-restoration.

On May 22nd, 2005, between 11:00 and 11:45 AM, it appeared in front of our administrative building with the following note:

“I am returning this to its rightful owner…It was taken by a former employee about 30 years ago. (NOT ME.) It eventually ended up in my possession. Now I give it back and pray that the “Curse” will cease on me and everyone associated with its removal from Shakertown. Thank you.”

For reference, please keep in mind that this bench is 8 ½ feet long. I have no idea how someone left the village with it unnoticed, but as they say, it was a different time. I also wonder what happened to make this person believe the bench was cursed.

Don’t try it at home, kids! I’m not saying a mysterious Shaker-themed curse will befall you if you steal from us, but I’m also not not saying that. Best not to risk it, right?

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was awarded a CARES grant through The National Endowment for the Humanities in June 2020. Funding from this grant award supported two activities to enhance digital humanities initiatives at SVPH, including Laura Webb’s work to review our collection records and prepare them for publishing in a public digital database.

“There being a contagious disease…”

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

Social distancing.
Stay at home orders.
No school.
No worship.
Essential activities only.
Take care of each other.

Sound familiar? While this sounds a lot like things that we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, all those things actually refer to the lives of the Pleasant Hill Shakers from December 1850-February 1851. In mid-December, a few of the folks in the Centre Family came down with a sickness, and within a week it was confirmed to be smallpox. On December 18, the East Family Deaconess recorded this:

There being a contagious disease prevailing at the Centre Family at this time called the varioloid, it was concluded this morning not to take up school any more for the present & discontinued all intercourse between the Families as far as practicable, so as to prevent the spreading any further if possible…and now all business is mainly suspended in that Family except to cook and wash and take care of the sick etc.” (East Family Deaconess Journal, Filson Historical Society Shaker Collection v.4)

While the village leadership moved quickly, they weren’t able to totally contain it – cases later arose in the East and West families.  In the following weeks, the Shakers tried to navigate their daily routines while managing this illness.  School for the boys and girls were both suspended.  Normal routines were disrupted for weeks, and nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly Sunday worship in the Meeting House.  This was an important time for the entire community to meet, and yet week after week journal entries on Sunday read “Meeting at home.”

On January 28, good news finally arrived…but with an exception:  “Tuesday 8 oclock P.M.  We assembled in the meeting room, and the Elders informed us that the varioloid had so far subsided that there but three cases remaining, one in each Family, and they were kept to themselves, so that it was thought to be safe for the Families to resume their usual intercourse and pursuits.  (A separation having been kept since about the 18th Ult., to prevent the disease from spreading.)  But it was not thought to be prudent to assemble at the meeting house next Sabbath &c.”(FHS Shaker Collection v.7)  It would be March 1, almost 3 months in total, until they collectively met at the Meeting House again.  From there, life appeared to return to normal.

Our experience with COVID-19 is not the first time that a disease has shaken life at Pleasant Hill.  While it isn’t exactly the same (a localized smallpox outbreak vs. a worldwide pandemic), there are similarities in our experiences.  So, I’d like to notice a few lessons that the Pleasant Hill Shakers can teach us as we start to transition into a new phase of life at Pleasant Hill.

It’s Okay to Go Slow

As noted above, on January 28, the Ministry felt like it was ok to resume normal activities, except for assembling at the Meeting House. It would be another month until that happened. This makes total sense, considering what we know about Shaker worship – lots of people in close quarters, singing, dancing, shouting, shaking. Participating in this activity would likely be worse than a bunch of modern teenagers spending their spring break together at the beach. Instead, the Ministry chose a course of deliberate, phased reopening, to use terms that we are used to today.

It’s Okay to Modify Your Behavior

One o’clock, P.M. Meeting at home by reason of affliction, the varioloid still prevailing at the Center family.  We had an orderly meeting, attended with considerable life and zeal…We made no donation of clothing for fear of conveying the varioloid or small pox to such as might receive them.” (25 December 1850, FHS.v.7)

Just because they couldn’t meet at the Meeting House, didn’t mean they lost their roles or identities as Shakers.  They met at home for 3 months, still worshiping with those that were able.  They even suspended the donation to the poor on Christmas, an important yearly practice, because of this.  They modified their behavior because the unique circumstances demanded it, and once it was over, they were luckily able to resume their standard routines.

Clean!

This morning the Center Family took their bed clothes & wooling clothing to the fulling mill  to wash & clear out the small pox and the next day they went on washing the walls of their dwelling house and taking up carpets brushing & cleaning them and every thing else until they had cleared off every thing that was tainted with the pox.” (15 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society Collection)

Don’t Forget About Others

I went to the East House to see the sick folks and found them bad- indeed Elizabeth was bedfast, Electa’s life was fast running away with a cancer, Triphena was also confined to the room with a swelling on her thigh, John Badget had been confined to his room for some time with a cut on his foot and was now fast able to walk about a little, Samuel was quite weak & his sense much scattered but still went to the shop.” (3 December 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

Polly Harris lived in the West Family.  She didn’t have to go to East Family (and she probably shouldn’t have), but I imagine she wanted to check on them.  Other times, medications and vaccinations were supplied to those in need.  Others had to chip in and help with jobs that couldn’t be done because of sickness.  And during some of the home meetings, they would send their love to those who were sick in other families.  The point is that they didn’t forget about the others around them who might need assistance.

Remember, There’s a Lot Going On

In consequence of the small pox  The Ministry & the Center Family alone attended the funeral of our Worthy Brother [Abram Wilhite] at 8 o’clock in the morning It being a very pleasant pretty day for the season of the year the Brethren & Sisters all went to the Grave yard that ware able.”  (11 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

When she visited the East Family, Polly Harris found a lot of sickness that wasn’t smallpox.  Then on top of this, there were members of the community dying, some from smallpox, but also from other causes, like Abram Wilhite.  Some were unable to attend the funeral for obvious reasons, but according to another journal, some didn’t attend because they were “afraid of the pox.”  Add this to the already difficult disruption of daily lives that were normally very structured.  I can imagine this being extremely overwhelming to many of the Shakers. 

As an extension to the previous point, don’t forget that others around you are living through a lot right now – sickness, death, unemployment, fear.  Then add the growing civil and racial unrest in our country to the mix.  No matter how you experience this, don’t forget about the others around you processing the exact same things, but perhaps in very different ways.  There is a lot going on right now.

Be Thankful

One oclock Meeting to day was held at home…We was called upon in the commencement of the meeting by the elder brother to be mindful to walk thankfully and humbly before God for the great blessing we now enjoy of good health while so many of our worthy brethren and sisters are suffering in the other families from the destestible disease Small pox, bed colds &c.” (12 January 1851, FHS v.6)

When “Normal” Returns – Make it Memorable

Holy Mother Ann’s Birth – This day was kept in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother’s birth  we assembled to the meeting house at the usual hour one, where we met the good ministry and the church at large, there beloved Elder James addressed the assembly thus, “Beloved friends, brethren & sisters, I feel thankful to meet with you again in this most favored and sacred place, after an absence of near three months, and will be well for each one if they have come prepared to commemorate in truth and reality our Mothers birth, mission &c, and do honor to the cause of salvation as made manifest to us, her children through her painful travel and soul sufferings, we therefore combine together to sing dance and give honor, praise and glory to her most sacred and worthy Name…” (1 March 1851, FHS v.6)

We then went forth in the march & circular dance, being informed at the same time that the guardian angels that attended Jesus Christ and Mother Ann while on earth were present, together with a number of our deceased friends who once lived in Pleasant Hill.” (1 March 1851, FHS v.7)

Mother Ann’s birthday was always a notable day for the Shakers.  They sang and danced, and were even “visited” by a host of angels and spirits.  While this might have been a pretty normal occurrence for this time period, I believe that the day as a whole had a memorable quality because of the events of the previous three months.  If you could talk to the Shakers who were there that day, what would they remember?

I don’t pretend to know exactly what the future holds, but we can be encouraged by the experiences of the Pleasant Hill Shakers 170 years ago.  They can give us a lot to think about.  Don’t forget that even though they lived communally, separated from the outside world to a degree, they were people just like us trying to navigate all the challenges that this world threw at them.  I believe, on some level, we can all sympathize with the sentiment expressed by this writer in February 1851:

Our meetings from the last date have been orderly and ordinary up to the first of March.  All seemed to be eager and anxiously waiting for a cessation of the disease, and a restoration to health, a restoration to free intermingling one with another in sociality and friendship and especially to meet again in the sacred worship of God, there to embrace each other in the sweetest enjoyment of gospel love and affection.” (FHS v.6)

Cooking is an Art

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“Indeed, cooking is an art just as much as painting a picture or making a piece of furniture.” – Shaker Eldress Bertha Lindsay, Canterbury, NH. August 1990.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is known today for many wonderful things. From farm animals to hiking trails, guided tours to family-friendly festivals, and Shaker music presentations to bobwhite quail, if you ask ten different people you might get ten different answers of what draws visitors to our property. One item in particular, however, tends to be on everyone’s mind: the food at the Trustees’ Table!

Guests to Shaker Village today are treated with seed-to-table fare in the historic 1839 Trustees’ Office.

Given the Shaker’s penchant for hospitality, it is no wonder that food has been on the minds of visitors, both invited and uninvited, for over two centuries.

Isaac Newton Youngs and Rufus Bishop, two Shakers visiting from New York in 1834, were offered watermelon so many times during their time at Pleasant Hill that it almost became a running joke in their travel account. All told, they mentioned eating watermelon at least 15 times during their visit—sometimes to the point of indulgence: “Today we have had to attend 3 or 4 times to eating watermelons, and these being pretty good hinders us a good deal.”

The dining room of the Centre Family Dwelling set as it would have been in the late 19th century. The postcard beckons readers to “note the quaint furniture.”

A few decades later, thousands of Confederate troops camped-out on the grounds of Pleasant Hill as they traversed central Kentucky in the build-up to the Battle of Perryville in October 1862. The Shakers were moved to pity by the ragged, hungry men, and they gave generously to feed the soldiers. “We nearly emptied our kitchens of their contents and they tore the loaves and pies into fragments and devoured them so eagerly as it they were starving….And then when our stores were exhausted, we were obliged to drive them from our doors while they were begging for food. Heart rending scene!”

In the 1870s, the completion of High Bridge over the Kentucky River brought many tourists to the area near Pleasant Hill. The Shakers offered many of these guests room and board and food service to supplement their declining income in other industries: “Visitors above left early and had to cross the River in Skiffs and walk up to the Towers. Their bill here for entertainment and passage back and forth repeatedly was 50 cents for meals, 40 cents for lodging, and 25 cents passage each way $12.30.”

The “Grey Room” of the Shakertown Inn, early 20th century.

By the late 1800s, some of the buildings at Pleasant Hill had been sold to outsiders who opened hotel and dining establishments. The East Family Dwelling had become the Shakertown Inn by 1897, and the Trustees’ Office had become the Shaker Mary Guest House by the early 1920s.

As the years passed, the Trustees’ Office changed hands several more times until it came to be owned by the Renfrew family in the 1950s. Dick DeCamp, a native of Lexington, recalled the restaurant fondly many years later. “The place had a lot of character. It was like something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner. They just had some tables around and the old shades were on the windows….They just had a few things – a special eggplant casserole and fried chicken and old ham.” According to Decamp, guests would sit out on the front steps and “kill a bottle of whiskey” before the food was finally ready. Then, someone would wind up the Victrola and everyone would get to dancing!

The 1839 Trustees’ Office as the “Shaker Village Guest House.”

Today at Shaker Village we continue this legacy of hospitable service and locally-sourced meals through the Trustees’ Table. The seed-to-table experience at the Trustees’ Table utilizes the best meat and produce from the Shaker Village Farm and other local farms to create our intriguing and delicious seasonal menus. Visit our website to discover all the inspired menu items, beyond our famous lemon pie!