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

“…to be remembered as a chair…”

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“…I almost expect to be remembered as a chair, or a table…”
Shaker Sister Mildred Barker, Sabbathday Lake, Maine

Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill?

These two questions cut directly to the core of the educational mission of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Deceptively simple upon first glance, they open the door to one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the social, cultural and religious milieu of early 19th century America.

To put the matter simply, the Shakers were a dissenting religious group in 19th century England who migrated to America in 1774. With a devotion to physical, experiential worship and a strict adherence to celibacy, more than a few contemporary observers offered admonishment and predicted the group’s demise over the years. All such predictions, it should be noted, have thus far been wrong—as of this publication, the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is still active!

For over 100 years, Shakers lived in union in Mercer County, Kentucky. In that time, over 2,000 individuals were part of this communal, utopian society.

Founded in 1806, Pleasant Hill was one of roughly two dozen intentional communities the Shakers established in the United States throughout the early 1800s. At Pleasant Hill, all covenant members chose to adopt the practice of celibacy, embrace gender and racial equality, live communally, and follow the leadership of community Ministers, Elders, and Eldresses as they advanced in their particular faith.

Reaching a height of nearly 500 members by the early 1820s, the community built impressive structures, established trade networks, and prospered economically due to the success of their agricultural operations. Although they declined in the later decades of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill Shakers lived in Mercer County, Kentucky until 1923.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Shakerism came to be overshadowed in broader American culture by the rise of the “Shaker” aesthetic—a focus on the simple, elegant designs of Shaker furniture and architecture. It was in the height of this frenzy that Sister Mildred Barker uttered the famous line in the 1980s that she would probably be remembered as nothing more than a piece of furniture.

Although the Shaker “moment” may not be as intense now as it was then, it is undeniable that the general perception of the Shakers and Pleasant Hill has been predominantly shaped by the Shaker aesthetic and an intense focus on craftsmanship and design.

Simple and efficient, yet elegant, the Shaker aesthetic became so popular during the 20th century that a narrow focus on furniture and architecture could, at times, obscure the astonishing stories of the community of Pleasant Hill and those who called it home.

While the attention to all things Shaker is welcome, the myopic focus on the Shaker aesthetic obscures the complex, varied, and ultimately triumphant human story at the heart of the Shaker legacy that is so incredibly relevant to our modern world.

So, again, we come to those two burning questions: Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill? These queries deserve more words than this blog post will permit, but it should be enough to note that any true answer would take us into the themes of family, devotion, religion, diversity, equality, creativity, and more—ideas to which everyone of us can relate.

I should be clear: the Shakers did not always live up to the ideals they strove to attain. At Pleasant Hill the community paid for enslaved labor, individual Shakers quarreled with one another, some stole meat from smokehouses, while one even left the community to become an armed bandit after the Civil War!

The last Shaker at Pleasant Hill, Sister Mary Settles, stands alone in a field. Mary’s life as an educator, community leader and proponent of women’s rights hints at the complex personal stories of individual Shakers that extended well beyond the society’s material culture.

So how do we remember the Shakers? What aspects of their lives, choices, and characters are most worthy of emulation? What can we as individuals and communities learn from the quest for perfect union and harmony? What is there for us to discover in their failures? Ultimately, these questions must be answered by everyone in their own time. It would be a shame, however, if all we remembered was a chair.

To take an in-depth look at Shaker history at Pleasant Hill, join us for an Historic Village Tour, running daily throughout the year. Check the Event Schedule for tour times!