Sister Mary, Remembered

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

Gender equality was, and is, a hallmark of Shaker belief.

In modern times, much of the Shakers’ progressive social structure may be taken for granted. Make no mistake though – the role of women in Shaker communities has historically set the society apart from the world around them in very meaningful ways.

Throughout the history of the Shaker movement, female leadership and influence has given shape to much of what we identify as “Shaker.” This can be traced from the time of Mother Ann Lee, who led a group of Shakers to first settle in America in 1774, and continues through every Shaker sister who has come after her. At Pleasant Hill, this legacy concluded in 1923 with the death of Sister Mary Settles.

Mary Settles was, at one time, one of the most photographed women in Kentucky.

Sister Mary Settles came to Pleasant Hill in 1859 with two small children. She claimed to be a widow and found refuge with the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, a place she called home for the final 64 years of her life. While Sister Mary took on many roles and became a leader in the community, her most significant contribution to the site was her role as an educator.

As the 19th century came to a close, the population of Pleasant Hill was dwindling.

The Shaker community at Pleasant Hill closed its covenant in 1910, with twelve Shakers remaining, including Sister Mary. As the Shaker community and buildings opened up to the world, Sister Mary became a local celebrity. People traveled from near and far to chat with her and perhaps snap a photo. Once the last Shaker Brother passed away in 1922, Sister Mary became the very last Pleasant Hill Shaker.

At a time when the community and religion was fading around her, it seems that Sister Mary did what she could to keep the story alive. She always welcomed questions on the Shaker faith, and was well-read and ready for a good conversation.

She is reported to have voted in the first election women were able to in 1920. In fact, she was quoted in a newspaper article, when asked if she voted, “Of course, isn’t the equality of women part of our religion?” Gender equality was indeed part of the Shaker faith, and every level of leadership had both a man and a woman at the helm.

A bonnet, once owned by Sister Mary and given as a gift to a visitor.
Now on display at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

Sister Mary was happy to give her opinion on matters of the day and was, by many reports, a great conversationalist. She was a staunch defender of Shakerism, and wanted people to understand the society as she did. Of course we remember them today, and study them actively, but as of 1922, Sister Mary was the very last Pleasant Hill Shaker, and more and more Shaker communities around her were being disbanded. The world was closing in, and it seems that Sister Mary decided to spend her time helping curious people of the world understand her way of life.

How should we remember Mary Settles today? As a mother, a leader, an educator, the “Last Shaker,” a celebrity, an advocate for women’s rights? All of the above?

At Shaker Village, we believe that studying the history of the Shakers, of Pleasant Hill and of people like Sister Mary gives us perspective on our own beliefs, roles and identities. Which begs the question: How will you be remembered?

Of Ducks and Dirt

J Dylan Kennedy, Farm Manager

During these last weeks of winter, feeding animals becomes our most regular, and important daily task on the farm. The cattle have exhausted all the grazing opportunities, which are slim in the first place, and even the free-ranging ducks have trouble finding unturned leaves and mulch hiding more bugs to eat. Very soon these resources will be plentiful, but for now we feed, and we put a lot of thought into how we feed.

Let’s talk about the ducks.

At Shaker Village we speak a lot about stacking functions, meaning we like to do tasks that accomplish multiple goals for us at once. We also don’t “fertilize” – at least as not in the traditional sense. Instead we manage soil fertility, and our animals are a big part of that. Any time we feed our animals anything that wasn’t grown on our farm, we’re bringing not only the grain, but the fertility that grew it. By thinking of it in this way we can take advantage of that fertility by planning where and how we feed.

In the image below you’ll see our ducks pecking at fermented grain that we have spread along a single garden row. This is something we like to do in the winter time. The snow on the ground today allows the effect the ducks have on the ground where they are fed to be better understood. The ducks usually defecate while they eat, so the area where they are fed receives a focused application of the nutrients which the ducks have ingested over the last several hours. Besides leaving droppings, they turn the top layer of mulch and soil over where they eat, maybe finding bugs, but also helping to aerate thereby promoting microbial life. We are also introducing new microbes into the soil through the fermented grain, or sour mash, that the ducks are eating. These microbes will likely not persist in the soil for long, but will fuel the soil food web, which we want to be as active as possible.

Of course, our ducks aren’t the only ducks that have this ability. The ducks, like all of our animals, are just doing what ducks do. It’s our job to understand as much as we can about what they do and when and how they do it, so we can take advantage of those actions instead of working against them.

The example of ducks can be applied to cattle and other livestock as well, and we are becoming even more intentional about how and where we feed our cattle. In the coming months we’ll be feeding Shaker Village animals mostly off of our own grounds again. Until then we’ll make the absolute most out of all the nutrition that comes from off-site, feed our animals with it, store it in our topsoil savings account, and withdraw it in the form of vegetables or more animal feed when we need it. It’s the circle of life (cue Lion King soundtrack.)

Herd at Work

J Dylan Kennedy, Farm Manager

The latest news on the farm is pretty big for us. Our resident cattle herd has finally made the jump out of the limited pasture available to them for years, and into the areas on the north side of the Village where infrastructure work to accommodate them has been taking place since summer. It’s time to share some more details about why they’re moving and what they’ll be doing.

The cattle are now fully engaged as part of our Village@Work, just as you’ve seen with pigs and ducks in our garden for the last few years. The cows are now a regenerative landscape crew, whose job is to improve fertility and biodiversity on our property in the long term. They do that just by doing what they like to do, and it’s our job to put them in situations where what they like to do is beneficial to our land. That might not make that total sense yet, but hopefully some pictures of the herd and their new surroundings will help highlight the changes they are initiating here.

For the time being the cattle are mostly occupying a tree line that separates two different areas of grass, one a hay field turned pasture, and the other of native grasses. In late February Ben Leffew, our Preserve Manager, will be burning much of the grasses to promote their growth. We can also use cattle to do so. In the pictures you’ll notice our cows love to lay down in the thick dry grasses that were recently standing, it’s just like fresh straw to them. Other than laying the grasses down, they also deposit manure and step dry material into the soil with their hooves. The end result is similar to that of a burn, in that it makes space for the next season’s grasses to flourish, but is also different.

By bringing the grass stubble in contact with the soil, and adding nutrients and microbial stimulants through manure, the leftover grasses from 2018 will break down biologically, further feeding the topsoil and contributing to the overall health of the land. As the seasons progress and conditions change, so will the situations we put the cattle in, but each time, we will be putting them in a position to make a positive impact on the health of our farm.

Stay tuned for more farm updates, there’s always something happening around here!

“Marking” Time

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

The Pleasant Hill Shakers were known for their production of silk products. We have another set of unique items in the collection at Shaker Village that utilize silk to a degree, but not exclusively. These are a group of perforated paper needlework bookmarks, in my opinion some of the most visually appealing items that we have. The silk is used as a backing to the stitched paper patterns.

These bookmarks were popular in the nineteenth century, especially during the Victorian era. This appears to be another way that the Shakers adopted practices that were also popular in the outside world. They were ways to produce mottos, sentiments, messages and feelings, and were often given as gifts. This appears to be the function they served at Pleasant Hill as well.

Below are images of the bookmarks from our collection. Seven of them share common features, one does not. They all come from a common source – In 1963, there was an auction of items that all had a history related to the West Family Dwelling and the last Shakers that lived there. These were part of that auction.

The “William” in the first row of bookmarks is probably William Pennebaker (WFP definitely is). He would have been in his later teenage years at the time these were created. The circumstances around the creation of these are shrouded in mystery, and I’ve never seen anything in the written record that sheds any light on it. I’ve always wondered if this was something that the kids in the community created for each other, namely the girls making for the boys. If so, what kind of messages were being sent and how did they determine who they gave these to?

Admittedly, this is a very incomplete picture of what was probably a widespread practice. It would be easy to draw a lot of conclusions from this, but until we gather more info, we will have to be stumped and be careful about making reckless speculations. But it’s definitely tempting, isn’t it?

A Visitor’s Account, 1879

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

I’m sharing this visitor’s account because I really like the description of the natural landscape given by the author.  While his main purpose is to describe the Shakers, he feels compelled to situate the people in the context of the land in which they live, and he does so in one of the most articulate ways that I’ve ever read (there are some great soundbites here).  More and more I’ve noticed that when visitors attempted to describe Pleasant Hill, their descriptions almost always fall into three main categories: land, buildings, people.  Of course, you could subdivide those a bit more, but these are often the main ways in which Pleasant Hill is represented in these accounts.  Interestingly, we still do much of the same thing today.

One thing I like about this description is how he sees the Shakers in a complementary relationship with the natural landscape, as if they are influencing each other, almost in a symbiotic way.  Now, in some cases, his assessments aren’t entirely accurate (ie: the Shakers being in perfect harmony among themselves), and he may just be doing this for artistic and dramatic effect, but, his overall vision and perspective is very interesting.  I hope you enjoy it.

If there is any place in this country which has been appropriately named it is the locality from which I write.  In a region famous, and justly so for its natural beauty, where hill and dale, woodland and lowland, mountain torrent and placid river are all to be found in one beautiful, diversified and picturesque scene, it is yet sufficiently striking in its attractiveness to warrant extra attention and justify the encomiums it draws from all who visit it.  Here nature seems to have poured out her treasures in the way of attractive scenery, pure air and a temperate atmosphere with a lavish hand.  And here, too, what change the hand of man has wrought has aided – not, as is generally the case, undone – the beautifying handiwork of nature.  But it is not so much of Pleasant Hill and its beauties, though they be ever so deserving of description, that I am about to write, but of the people who have made it their abiding place, and who, from certain peculiarities in their mode of life, are objects of interest to all who pay any attention to that most interesting of all studies – human nature.

Here, in this spot so favored by nature, and possessing the double advantage of being not far distant from the busy haunts of men, and yet in a semi-solitude, a community of that peculiar religious denomination known as Shakers has been located for the past seventy years, and have thriven and grown in numbers and prosperity.  Chance, and a curiosity to ascertain for myself something of their peculiar manner of living, having impelled me to pay them a visit, I have been rusticating here for a couple of days, and have found the visit both pleasant and profitable.

[The community] is located on what is known as Pleasant Hill, which here spreads out in a beautiful plateau as far as the eye can reach, and lies about a mile and a half distant from the Kentucky River, whose rapid current washes the northern base of the hill, which rises in a bold-faced perpendicular cliff, fully five hundred feet above its surface.  A deep, wooded ravine, known as Cedar Run, divides Pleasant Hill from the mountains on the east, and up its western side a well-constructed turnpike road winds in a gentle ascent to the summit, where the village lies, secluded and quiet as if elevated above and shut out from the rest of the world as

“A spot that is sacred to thought and God.” 

An air of quietness and peace broods over the scene, and steals with a softening, hallowing influence to the heart of the beholder, until he feels, with the poet,

               “If peace can be found in this world of ours,

               A heart that is humble might hope for it here.”

And the longer one stays in this vicinity the stronger this feeling takes hold on his mind.  Here every thing is at peace.  A community of interests and property causes strife and bickering to be unknown.  Like a family united in heart, interests and religion, and all the members of which live in harmony, there is no discordant jarring or clashing to disturb the peace of the community; and the charm of a strict regularity hovers over all and enhances the pleasure one feels in contemplating the mode of life of this peculiar people.  Here is the same daily routine of life.  Here at the same hour each morning the same bell which rang out the morning before wakes the brethren from their calm slumbers, calling them to their morning meal and the not-too-severe labors of the day.  Each division of the day is marked by its pleasing sound, and in the evening it summons the community to join in praise of their Creator, and gives the signal for retiring.  All is order and regularity, and industry, frugality and temperance are virtues practiced by all.

(1879.03.14, Shakers and Shakerism, The Cincinnati Enquirer)