A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.

Swept Away

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“These people are rich and getting richer. Contrast a Shaker broom with a penitentiary contract-labor broom. One sweeps and the other raises dust…” – “Shaker Socialism Good,” Salt Lake (UT) Herald, June 21, 1896

A flat broom press holds the bound broomcorn in a flattened position so the broom may be tied into its permanent shape.

Over the years, the Shakers and brooms have become somewhat synonymous. In many ways this makes sense: broom making was widespread in Shakerdom, and nearly all Shaker communities made brooms for use within their villages and to sell to the outside world. Just how many were made? At Pleasant Hill, for instance, Brother Francis Monfort reportedly made 25,000 broom handles in 1859 alone!

Beyond the common association of brooms with the Shakers, however, what’s the real story about the importance of brooms to the Shakers and their lifestyle? It might surprise you…

Before we go any further, we should get something out of the way. Despite the enduring legacy of this particular myth, the Shakers did not invent the flat broom. They did, however, create a flat broom press that greatly facilitated the process of making these brooms.

Begun at Watervliet, New York, in 1798, the Shaker broom industry quickly became one of the most important economic lifelines for Shaker communities across America. By the 1840s, Pleasant Hill had planted nearly 60 acres of broomcorn on their property, and they were turning out thousands of brooms each year for sale to towns and cities near and far. For most of the rest of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill found a ready market for their brooms that continued to sell for between $2 and $3 per dozen.

The interior of a broom shop at Pleasant Hill in the late 19th century. This could possibly be inside the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop – today’s Welcome Center! c. 1880-1900

Like many other Shaker-made products, there also developed a fascination with the superior quality of Shaker brooms. The quote that opens this blog post is only one of many testimonials to Shaker quality. Consider this clipping from a New York newspaper in 1842: “The Shakers for a long time almost monopolized the raising of the [broom] corn and the manufacture of brooms which…were always of a superior quality.”

An association with the Shakers, even a lapsed one, could also carry weight with consumers. One Pleasant Hill Shaker who left the community opened a broom store in Richmond, Kentucky, and resorted to a unique marketing approach: “The Shakers do certainly know how to make brooms. Mr. Spencer, being an ex-Shaker, will make you an ‘ex-Shaker broom.’ When you buy a broom, be certain it is an ‘ex-Shaker’ and then you’ll know you have got the best.”

Lars Ericson ran the broom operation at Pleasant Hill in the latter part of the 19th century. The large cylinder to the right of Ericson was used to clean broom corn prior to its use in brooms. c. 1880-1900

Although indelibly linked to Shaker economics, brooms can also be seen as a symbolic of several important Shaker ideals. After all, cleanliness was far from the demands of rogue, overzealous Shaker leaders—it was a spiritual and moral imperative that came from none other than Mother Ann Lee. “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt,” she is supposed to have famously quipped!

As it often turns out with history, what you think you know is only the beginning!

Want to learn even more about the Shaker broom industry? Come out and join our Swept Away: Shaker Innovations program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. Check the daily schedule for tour times!

Want to go a bit more in-depth? Every fall, Shaker Village offers broom making workshops where you make your own hand-tied brooms and take part in this traditional craft! Check our event calendar to learn about these exciting opportunities!

2019 – A Year In Review

A quiet winter peace falls over Shaker Village this time of year. The bustle of the holidays is ending, and the promise of a new year is here. The administration and staff have spent the last few weeks busily celebrating the Holidays and making sure each guest has felt kindly welcome. The team has also started to think about plans and activities for next year, with words like “benchmarks,” “budgets” and “events” being spoken in meetings. But, every year around this time we stop to catch our breath. We pause from making plans, and reflect on the past year.

The Pleasant Hill Shakers were known for their innovative thinking and their ingenuity. Reflection goes hand-in-hand with innovation. The ability to reflect on everyday life, specific tasks, processes, activities and more, allows us to understand our blessings and see opportunities. As the staff pauses in reflection, we wanted to share some of the milestones from the Village this year.

The Historic Centre

The 1824-1834 Centre Family Dwelling preservation project came to completion earlier this year and the building reopened to the public after being closed since 2017. This project concluded the preservation of the “spiritual center” of Pleasant Hill.

We took care to provide loving attention to all 34 of our historic structures this year. Some of the more notable preservation projects in 2019 included new roofs, new siding, restored windows, repaired thresholds and more for the 1833 Water House, the 1860 Bath House, the 1821 Ministry’s Workshop, the 1811 Old Stone Shop and the 1824 Tanyard. Our visitors might not have noticed, but we upgraded sprinkler heads throughout several of our historic buildings this year as a preventative safeguard.

The site-wide interpretative planning process also concluded this year, providing us with a road-map to creating a cohesive and comprehensive guest experience. You’ll see the next step of this plan implemented in the early months of 2020 with the installation of 20 outdoor waystations across the 3,000 acre property. Our development staff also made significant steps towards securing funding for permanent exhibits that are part of this plan and vital to our mission.

If you are on our mailing list, you receive our quarterly mailing detailing our seasonal programming and signature events. Each day at Shaker Village is a different adventure. In 2019, we offered 35+ daily, seasonal programs, plus 41 specialty workshops and 9 major events. Those are just the experiences we planned in advanced! Several other opportunities came up throughout the year – like a trail bike ride event – that we hosted on site.

Our daily programs offer a unique and sometimes surprising interpretation of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. One of our most popular programs, Shaker Troublemakers, highlighted individual Pleasant Hill Shakers. You’ll see more individual stories included in the planned permanent exhibits.

The weather proved to be challenging during our signature events in 2019, but through the cold, the heat and the rain these events were attended by guests who left us with fantastic feedback. This feedback helps us to know that we are on track with our mission to inspire generations through discovery, and helps us see opportunities for growth, improvement and innovation.

The Farm

At the end of 2019, any visitor to The Farm will notice our “farmily” members are happy, healthy and more numerous than in past years. The growing herd of sheep and cattle represent the Shaker’s past and our organizations future as a leading educator and model for sustainable agriculture. Our farmer has named this herd at work our regenerative landscape crew! And, it may just be us, but can you really visit the Indian Runner Ducks in The Orchard and leave with a frown on your face? These quirky animals are great ambassadors for The Farm and one of the first things you notice when you arrive at the Welcome Center.

The farm includes over 150 garden beds in which our farmers use low to no-till practices, incorporate crop rotation and cover cropping, use a high diversity of crops, and have integrated livestock to contribute nutrients and minerals back into the soil. One of the biggest celebrations of 2019 is completing and receiving our USDA Organic Certification. This year we strategically supplied food items to The Trustees’ Table for a farm-to-table experience for our guests. We also donated over 300 pounds of produce to local organizations to help those in our community achieve food security!

The Preserve

On The Preserve, our naturalists have continued their efforts to promote a healthy restored native prairie and monitor the benefits to the native plant and animal species. While there are many cool things about The Preserve, perhaps the niftiest was discovered this year during our first survey in recent times of the bat population. We caught five different species of bats – including the Gray bat Myotis grisescens, a threatened species in Kentucky and an endangered species federally.

In 2019, as in past years, we managed prescribed fire in The Preserve. While that might seem counterintuitive to land management practices and the promotion of a thriving habitat, fire is the most effective management tool we have. Plus, fire is a natural occurrence and has always been part of open herbaceous grasslands. This year, with the help of 32 trained crew members, over 450 acres of native prairie was burned.

Support from the Community

It has been a tremendously successful and fun year, and that’s because of you – our valued guest. This year, more visitors explored Shaker Village, dined at The Trustees’ Table, visited The Shops, stayed in The Inn, and donated time and money to support our nonprofit mission.

It takes a village to care for this National Historic Landmark. On that note, we are particularly pleased to have hosted two public Village-wide Volunteer Days, four public Volunteer Trail Days and many private group volunteer projects. Building a culture of philanthropy starts by engaging our biggest supporters – you – to give their time to preserving this powerful place.

We also met and exceeded a matching challenge from the Shaker Village Board of Trustees to raise $350,000 for the Annual Fund from new donors and from renewing donors who chose to increase their tax-deductible gift this year. Meeting this challenge was critical for the future of this site, and made some of the amazing things we have been reflecting on here possible.

So, next year, after this pause of reflection, when we talk about things like “benchmarks” and “budgets” it’s going to be with a new sense of excitement. Great things are happening at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. We can’t wait to share them with you!

“…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.

The Campaign for Shaker Village

Melissa Donahoo, Development Coordinator

Celebrating Success: Phase 1 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

In late 2014, the Board of Trustees launched an ambitious $25 million campaign to raise much needed funds for preservation, education and conservation for our unique cultural treasure, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. To date, the Village has raised $13.8 million and completed over $6.1 million preservation projects, including the iconic 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling, the 1820 Meeting House and the new Welcome Center in the 1815 Carpenters’ Shop! Funding for these projects was provided in part by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the James Graham Brown Foundation and by many private individuals.

As an additional part of The Campaign for Shaker Village, a new donor-restricted endowment has been established, based on a generous challenge grant from an anonymous donor. This $2 million grant was matched by $4 million in contributions raised by the Board of Trustees prior to December 31, 2017. This ambitious effort has resulted in over $6.2 million, substantially increasing Shaker Village’s total endowment and providing greater long-term financial security for Shaker Village.

Continuing Our Investment: Phase 2 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

Projects in progress or completed in 2019 include the 1833 Water House, the 1860 Bath House, the 1821 Ministry’s Workshop and the 1811 Old Stone Shop. It’s exciting to see preservation at work around the Village and know that with each new rooftop installed and window preserved, we are ensuring the site’s future for many generations to come!

The 1817 East Family Dwelling.

In October of this year, we secured a multi-year gift of $750,000 from an anonymous donor toward the preservation of the 1817 East Family Dwelling. If you’ve visited recently, you may have noticed that preservation work has begun as we work to restore the windows in this building. A new rooftop, masonry work and more will be completed over the next few years without interrupting the function of the building. We have $250,000 remaining to raise to complete the fundraising for this project.

There is still much work to do!

We are pursuing several additional major gift opportunities for programming needs, a site-wide master plan, specific restoration projects and the endowment. Please join us in making a tax-deductible gift to support Shaker Village and its mission to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacy of the Kentucky Shakers!

You can make a donation right now or contact the Development Office at 859.735.1545 to find out more.