“…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.

“…Prepared Herbs and Roots…”

Rebekah Roberts, Program Specialist

“A large business is done… in pressed and prepared herbs and roots, besides many tons in bulk…and many tons of extracts, both solids and fluids. The War makes great demand for all the articles. They sell in large quantities. We cannot prepare enough to meet the demand.” – Harvey L. Eads, South Union Shaker Village

Although perhaps not widely known, the Shakers were among the first group of Americans to begin selling herbs for medicinal purposes in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Shaker communities from the east coast to Kentucky produced a wide variety of medicinal products that went out in the world including medicines, salves, extracts and pressed herbs born from their “physic” gardens. Most Shakers followed the Thomsonian perspective regarding herbal medicines: they believed herbs could cure all ailments. Luckily for their economic fortunes, many Americans at the time believed the same!

At Pleasant Hill, the community produced several hundreds of pounds of herbs each year, and began to expand their garden plots to accommodate their growing industry in the 1840s. “Today we ploughed up a piece of meadow on the west side of the south shed for the purpose of removing the medical garden to that place. Same day ploughed up a piece of meadow, on the west side of the south street, twice as large, as we need more space. Medical garden by John Shain, length 28 feet by 11 feet.”

By the time of the Civil War, as the quote from Harvey Eads above indicates, the herbal industry was extremely important to the two Shaker communities in Kentucky (Pleasant Hill and South Union) and a booming business was to be had. Such success was widespread and shared by the Shaker communities along the east coast as well due in large part to the popularity of one particularly famous herbal remedy: Mother Seigel’s Syrup, also known as Shaker Extract of Roots. In fact, this remedy was probably the most widely distributed herbal medicine in the world during the last quarter of the nineteenth century!

Mother Seigel’s Curative Syrup was a very popular remedy in the late 1800s.

Alongside their success in tying agricultural pursuits to the demands of the market, the Shakers also used herbs within their communities. At Pleasant Hill, Shaker Sisters and children would often take to the woods, seeking out medicinal plants that could be foraged, considering wild plants to be gifts from God. What sort of native medicinal plants did the Pleasant Hill Shakers forage? Their journals reference many: boneset, lobelia, hoarhound, elder flowers, and wild ginger, among others.

By the late-1870s, declining fortunes at Pleasant Hill led the Shakers to seek a financial panacea in the form of an herbal cure-all remedy that they purchased from a Shaker apostate and her husband. Titling this new substance The Shaker Elixir of Malt, the medicine was never a successful sell. Ultimately, the Pleasant Hill Shakers had to seek out additional sources of revenue to try and recover from the financial losses of the failed venture.

At Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill today, herbs are still a prominent feature in our agricultural pursuits. After preservation work was recently completed on the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling, we replanted our herb garden and divided it into beds that mimic how the Shakers would have organized their own herb beds. What do you think we grow in each bed? Well, some things you are going to have to come to Shaker Village and find out for yourself!

The newly replanted herb garden at Shaker Village, spring 2019.

Join us this winter for the daily program Shaker Herbs: A Winter Tea Tasting to discover more about the Shaker herb industry and enjoy warm herbal tea made from a traditional Shaker blend! Check the daily schedule for program times.