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!

Kindly Welcome

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“… We observed one very pleasant feature… conspicuous above many other excellencies, nearly every person in speaking makes the visitor kindly welcome to Pleasant Hill.” -Henry Blinn, “A Journey to Kentucky in the Year 1873”

Pleasant Hill has been welcoming visitors and guests to its grounds for over 200 years. Although established as a community intentionally separated from the outside world, it was never possible for the Shakers to completely isolate themselves. In addition to conducting business with outsiders, many Shakers from other communities also visited. These Shakers were among the first “guests” welcomed to Pleasant Hill.

The 1817 East Family Dwelling, pictured in a postcard as the Shakertown Inn and again as it appears today.

Two Shakers visiting from New York, Isaac Newton Youngs and Rufus Bishop, provided an enlightening description of their welcome in 1834. According to the men, “Soon after we arrived at Lexington, we found Elder George Runyon and Rufus Bryant there from Pleasant Hill very glad to meet us, they pay great attention to us and do everything they can to make us comfortable.”

Nearly four decades later, Henry Blinn, visiting from New England, reported a similar feeling of warm hospitality. “Br Elhannen came to pay us a visit. He said that Elder James was always anxious that visitors should be properly attended to…Thus far the introduction into a southern society had proved itself to be one of gospel love & affection, and we retired to rest with a grateful heart.”

Nannie Embry, outside of the 1817 East Family Dwelling when it was the Shakertown Inn. September, 1922.

Financial difficulties in the late-1800s forced Pleasant Hill to sell land and buildings, and by 1897 the East Family Dwelling had been sold and converted into the Shaker Hotel that was operated by Sister Jane Sutton. Eventually, this building would become the Shakertown Inn, run by Nannie Embry. Embry was enamored of the history of the Shakers and drew upon the community as inspiration for her business model: “And as for the tradition of hospitality, the very building we occupy was for many years a Shaker boarding house where weary city folk came for rest.

The Shakertown Inn would eventually close in 1940, as would another hotel operation that had been begun in the Trustees’ Office a few decades earlier, the Shaker Mary Guest House.

The “Bridal Chamber” of the Shakertown Inn was furnished quite differently then the current “Shaker inspired” rooms of The Inn at Shaker Village.

Overnight lodging returned to Pleasant Hill with the establishment of the non-profit organization that still operates The Inn today. Just as Shaker legacies continued to inspire the various hotel proprietors during the years after the Shakers, today at The Inn at Shaker Village we remain influenced by Shaker style and history.

The Inn at Shaker Village has 72 guest rooms spread out over 13 historic Shaker buildings. The rooms have been updated with modern amenities, but they retain their Shaker simplicity. From accommodations in buildings such as the East and West Family Dwellings that are akin to a hotel, to cottages that can be booked in their entirety, staying overnight at The Inn is a special way to experience the history of hospitality at Pleasant Hill that we continue to this day.

Visit our website to book your stay and enjoy this slice of Kentucky and American history! As Nannie Embry quipped in the 1920s, “the charm of the place is a practical peace.”

“…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.

Gender Equality, In Theory: Sister Jane Sutton

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

This blog post is dedicated to Rebekah Roberts who sought the truth in the past, and tried to give voice to the voiceless.

In 1899, visitors from Berea arrived at Pleasant Hill for a meal.  As they began eating, they asked the Shaker “sister in charge” a series of questions to learn more about the history and beliefs of the Shakers. 

“‘How do you deal with such difficult problems as woman’s rights?’

Jane Sutton, the sister in charge, responded:

‘Theoretically the brethren and sisters are equal in all things, but practically,’ with a little laugh, ‘the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.'” (The Berea Reporter,
“Shakertown,” April 3, 1899)

Portrait of Sister Jane Sutton

As a woman in power at Pleasant Hill, Jane Sutton would know!  Pleasant Hill’s first and only active female Trustee, Jane Sutton saw the practical reality of doing business as a woman in the 19th century. 

Gender equality has always been a core belief of the Shaker faith.  Men and women were equal in all things through the Shaker’s belief in the duality of God.  This belief was manifested in the leadership and hierarchical structure of Shaker communities.  Gender equality in practice for the Shakers meant that all received an education, all could aspire to leadership roles, and all had access to the same accommodations and amenities.  Yet, the Shakers were still products of the 19th century. 

During the 19th century, men and women were thought to inhabit separate spheres in society, with women inhabiting the private sphere and men the public sphere.  Often referred to as the ‘Cult of Domesticity,’ it was believed that woman, as traditional caregivers, had control of the home, the children, and domestic affairs.  This gendered role also dictated that women had no place in the business world that existed outside of the home.  Though the Shakers practiced gender equality in their leadership structure, these traditional gender roles were still present in their distribution of labor.  Shaker sisters were responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, and textile production, while Shaker brethren were responsible for broom production, furniture making, tending to the livestock and crops, and other matters of industry. 

Men and women did have equal say in matters of governance at Pleasant Hill, but women did not have access to leadership in business for much of the 19th century.  Throughout the history of Pleasant Hill, there were usually two male Trustees that handled the community’s finances, legal deeds and contracts, and managed commercial partnerships with businesses of the world.  Women did have a role at the Office, but their primary responsibility was to cook and clean, and serve meals to the visiting public. 

As demographics shifted in the second half of the 1800s, however, women began to assume more responsibility based on need. Sister Jane Sutton was one such woman. 

Jane Sutton and Mary Settles standing in front of the East Family Brethren’s Shop, then being used as the
Village’s Office.

Sister Jane Sutton was born in 1832, and arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1834.  By 1868 she went to live and work in the Office.  Journal records indicate that Sutton joined Pleasant Hill Trustees on trading trips throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and oversaw the “public dining room” at the Trustees’ Office.  On Oct. 1, 1894, she was officially appointed a Trustee along with two other Shakers.  In her role as Trustee, she also oversaw the Shaker Hotel after it opened in 1897 to visitors.  By 1910, however, it appears that Sutton no longer served as a Trustee. In the contract that sold the declining community’s lands to a local businessman, Sister Jane was not listed as one of the official Trustees that signed their names to the contract.  Though she and her fellow sisters outnumbered the remaining men of the community, 10 to 2 in fact, the men took charge of this final matter of business.      

Sister Jane Sutton passed away on December 29, 1912.  The following journal entry was written in the weeks before her passing, “Sister Jane is known and loved by everyone.  She has been one of the commanding figures of Shakertown for years and is a natural leader who would command respect and a following no matter in what walk of life she had been placed.  There are many, even outside the Shaker Village, who will grieve that her firm hand is beginning to tremble with the weakness of age.”    

While gender equality was a staple of Shaker ideology, it appears in practice that such equity was often hard to obtain. Jane Sutton provides us with a glimpse into the world of nineteenth century business from the female point of view, and as she says, with a little laugh, “the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.”

Pages of a letter sent to George Bohon by Jane Sutton and Mary Settles in 1911.