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?

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories

By Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

Do you have a favorite Shaker artifact?  When you think of Pleasant Hill, do any special objects come to mind?  If you could pick one word to describe Pleasant Hill or the Shakers, what word would that be? 

Trying to pick one word or one artifact can be challenging, but it is a fun exercise because it can help to clarify what the Shakers mean to you personally.  Every artifact offers visitors an opportunity to connect with the Pleasant Hill story, and our latest exhibit, Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories, helps to establish these relevant connections. 

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories highlights Shaker Village’s artifact and archival collection, and encourages visitors to think critically about what, and why, we collect.  Featuring over 20 artifacts, this exhibit will help visitors piece together the Pleasant Hill story by not only exploring the objects left behind, but by considering why they matter.  The Shakers called Pleasant Hill home for over a century, and their diverse individual experiences left us with a collection that is equally varied and diverse. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was founded in 1961 to “collect, preserve, and display the records, artifacts, tools, and products of the Shaker community.” Today, Shaker Village actively maintains 34 historic structures, 25 miles of rock walls, 3,000 acres of original Shaker land, and over 7,000 objects and documents!  The Pleasant Hill Shakers have a fascinating story to tell, but how do we, as a museum, tell that story? 

Shaker material culture, particularly Shaker furniture, is often the point of entry into the Shaker story for many visitors.  Pieces of Shaker furniture were the first artifacts to be collected and studied by early 20th century Shaker scholars.  Furniture was so heavily studied and written about that it became the focal point for discussions on the Shakers for much of the 20th century, much to the chagrin of Shaker Mildred Barker, who famously stated, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair.”

Shaker chairs featured in the new exhibit.

While furniture and furniture making were important components of the Shaker experience, there is so much more to the story.  This new exhibit features Shaker furniture along with additional artifacts from the collection to emphasize the importance of analyzing objects to understand their significance to the history of the community.  By digging deeper into these artifacts, and uncovering the personal stories behind them, we can explore the dynamic nature of this community.     

The exhibit will lead visitors through a series of questions that address the artifacts themselves and the scope of the collection as a whole.  Guests will also be encouraged to get involved in the research process to uncover the individuals and stories behind our artifacts.  In doing so, we hope that visitors will understand not only how the artifacts fit into the larger Pleasant Hill story, but also how these stories help build meaningful connections with their own lives. 

Every artifact has a story to tell, you just have to know what questions to ask. 

Join us as we examine the importance of artifacts, and the ways in which we can use them to understand more about life in this community!

This project is supported with funding from the Kentucky Local History Trust Fund (KRS 171.325), a program administered by the Kentucky Historical Society.  For more information, see history.ky.gov/local-history-fund

Sharing the Archives, One Bite at a Time

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“I visited here in 1993 and remember seeing an interesting clothes press. Where is that now, and can I see it again?”

“These journal excerpts are fascinating! Can we read the whole thing?”

“Do you have any other examples of Pleasant Hill oval boxes I could look at?”

“Can anyone go poke around in your archives, or only researchers?”

“Where’d all the stuff go that used to be in this building?”

Shaker artifacts are housed in protected storage.

As historical interpreters working with the public, my colleagues and I often receive questions about our artifact collections. You may already know that we’ve had to shuffle many of our artifacts due to recent preservation work, including in the Centre Family Dwelling. What you may not know is that our artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in our collections!

So, why don’t we have all of this great Shaker “stuff” out for everyone to see all of the time? It’s not because we don’t love our visitors (we do) or want you to see them (we do). First, space is always at a premium, and a room packed with furniture doesn’t make the best exhibit. Second, and more importantly, many of our artifacts are fragile — for their conservation, we need to limit how often they are handled, exposed to sunlight and taken out of controlled storage.

Large items like furniture are carefully organized and archived.

“How can I see the artifacts if they aren’t on display?” I’m glad you asked! With grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the help of the internet, the team here at Pleasant Hill are developing a means of digital access to our collections. Anyone with an internet connection can search or browse our documents, artifacts and photographs, regardless of who or where they are. This eliminates the risk of damaging any of the objects. Sounds like a win-win, right?

In order for all of the information to be documented someone (…me) has to:

  • Sift through existing digital records with an editorial eye checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.
  • Find, or create, and enter in missing information such as images or dimensions.
  • Start chipping away at creating records for items that have never been digitized.

With approximately 4,700 object records in our database alone, it’s an elephant-sized task! You know what they say about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

From now until the end of the year, this blog series will go behind the scenes of this project, and tell the stories of some of the objects you’ll see in our database. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you along the way!

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

The Face of the Newborn Year

fannie-marie-pennebaker-fisher-0472-600dpi-1

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The presence of babies isn’t something you would expect to find in the records of a Shaker archive, and yet that’s precisely what we find in The Collections here.

Photographs of Shaker babies are few and far between, but we are privileged to have a handful of infant and toddler photographs in our archives. Some of the photographs, which were on display in the Shaker Selfies Exhibit last fall, show Pleasant Hill Shakers holding and posing with babies. Who were these babies, and how did they come to be in this community?

While not as much is known about the lives of babies and young children at Pleasant Hill as we would like, research is ongoing to discover more about the lives of Shaker youth. Though the Shakers didn’t believe in marrying and having children themselves, they didn’t necessarily condemn those outside the Shaker faith for doing so. After all, the offspring and orphans of others often became their wards, protégés and converts.

Shakers were known by their neighbors for their upstanding education system and elevated quality of life, which for some parents was more than they could offer their children at home. Such was the case for one desperate mother who, on a cold day in March 1865, left her newborn infant on the West Family milk bench. While the infant was “very neatly” dressed when discovered by the cow boy, the mother of the abandoned child professed she could not take care of the baby, thus leaving it to be provided for by the Shakers.

As research currently stands, more than 80 babies were present at Pleasant Hill between 1806 and 1889—a number that is still growing as names and stories of Shakers continue to be discovered every day in the archives.

Of the babies who appear in the Shaker record books within their first days or months of life, we know of four who were born here:

  • Love Monfort and Malinda Tyson had the unique experience of being born, raised and buried in a Shaker community. The baby girls were born at Pleasant Hill just one month apart—Love came first on November 25, 1809, and Malinda followed a month later on Christmas Day. Love’s mother, Peggy, came to the community with her husband, Jacob, when she was seven months pregnant, while Malinda’s mother, Anna, strolled back into the village just days before giving birth.2 Both girls’ fathers ultimately left Pleasant Hill, but the girls and their mothers remained in the village until their deaths.
  • More than a month after coming to Pleasant Hill in October 1810, Rachel Monfort Voris gave birth to Hortincy Voris. Although her little girl ultimately left the community in 1829, Rachel and her husband, John, stayed and contributed to the community for the rest of their lives.
  • As a widowed mother of five, Jane McBride came to Pleasant Hill three months pregnant with daughter Lucy Smith McBride, who was born at the village September 30, 1831. By the time she died in 1856, all of Jane’s children had left her—all except Lucy, who remained with the Shakers another 10 years until July 8, 1866, when she ran away with Daniel Perrow, a fellow Shaker whom she went on to marry and have three children.

Beyond photographs and journal articles in the archives, evidence of babies at Pleasant Hill extends into our 3-D collection, where we find two infant and one adult-size cradles. The long cradle would have allowed for more than one infant to be rocked at once, but also would’ve been used to comfort ill and aged adults.

cradle

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Stories like this are being discovered here every day.

With building restorations in The Historic Centre, new trails on The Preserve, innovative programs on The River, fresh crop rotations on The Farm and new recipes at the Trustees’ Table, it’s an exciting time to be at Shaker Village.

This year, and in the years to come, as we continue to work to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers, we hope you’ll explore Shaker Village for yourself, discover its stories and be inspired to do great things.

“Is this world any better for our having lived…? We can hope so; and in the peace thereof… look on the next page to hail with joy the face of the newborn year.” —S.A. Neale, The Shaker Manifesto, December 1879


1 The markings on the verso of this photograph postcard date it anywhere from 1918-1930. Pleasant Hill dissolved as an active community in 1910, which leaves us to deduce that this baby was not raised in the Shaker faith. She was, however, related to the Pennebaker family of Pleasant Hill, which is why her photograph appears in The Collections.

2 Anna Tyson and her husband, Joab, had first arrived at Pleasant Hill in September 1808, but when spring came, the journals tell us Joab “took his wife and children off by force.” When Anna returned to the village in December 1809, she was nine months pregnant with Malinda. 


New stories, new programs, new projects, New Year. Check out this year’s Events Calendar for new ways you can experience Shaker Village in 2017!

Emálee KrulishArchivist