Over the course of its history, the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill was the spiritual home to 28 people who identified as African American. But the story proves more complex, exciting and sometimes tragic than what that simple number, 28, can represent. Pleasant Hill’s location on a major thoroughfare, within the boundaries of a slave state, meant that hundreds more African American people were enmeshed into the Shakers’ rich history in Mercer County, Kentucky. Take a close look at some of Shaker Village’s archival images, and see just how complex the Village’s racial history really was.
A great place to start is the photograph below, of a group of Pleasant Hill Shakers in the doorway of the Broom Shop circa 1886-1891. The African American man stands in the rear of the group, in the shadow of the doorway, with his head tilted downward. Then there is the image of the Children’s Order, with an African American Shaker woman standing off to the far-right side, markedly distanced from the others.
In many of our nineteenth century images, African Americans can be found at the margins and outer edges. This trend changes over time, until the twentieth century when African Americans begin to occupy center stage in many archival documents. If visual evidence can offer any clues about life as a black Shaker, it is that the Shaker approach to race was full of both hope and hypocrisy; while the Village was a rare example of inclusivity, a certain level of prejudice percolated the community, leaving African Americans sometimes standing in the shadows and edges of social life.
We may use this history as an opportunity to look closer at our own lives. Whether it is in our office spaces, shopping spaces, or at community gatherings, who do you see standing in the margins? Who might you notice is present, but not fully included? What does this say about our own communities, and what can we do to change for the better?
To learn more visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring our seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.
“It was something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner.” – Dick DeCamp, late 1950s
The Trustees’ Office is one of the most well-known buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. In fact, it’s the building guests most often ask for when they first arrive at our property—and for good reason, our restaurant, The Trustees’ Table, is located inside!
Alongside the restaurant, visitors are also often amazed by the twin spiral staircases that run from the first to the third floor. Constructed by Shaker brother Micajah Burnett, the stairs are so iconic that they are likely some of the most photographed elements of Shaker architecture in America.
These highlights, despite their importance, are only a fraction of the story of the Trustees’ Office itself. For in the story of the Trustees’ Office we can see the rise and fall of Pleasant Hill – and the emergence of Shaker Village…
Built in 1839, the Trustees’ Office today is used in a similar way to how the Shakers would have used the space. It’s a place where food can be acquired, lodging obtained and business conducted. In other words, it was meant to be a building where designated members of the Shaker community (the Trustees) interacted with people from the outside world.
Because it was meant to be a public building, the Trustees’ Office looks quite different from all other structures at Shaker Village. Instead of relying on traditional Shaker designs, Micajah Burnett modeled the Trustees’ Office after public buildings in Lexington and Frankfort. Indeed, with its Flemish bond brickwork and tidy cupola it is a great example of Federal style architecture from the early 1800s!
As Pleasant Hill prospered in the mid-19th century, the Trustees’ Office remained a hub that attracted visitors and other folks with business connections to the Shaker community. By the 1890s, however, Pleasant Hill’s decline was made manifest when they were forced to sell the Trustees’ Office and an additional 766 acres to John B. Castleman of Louisville to settle a particularly large debt.
The Trustees’ Office was operated as the Shaker Village Guest House (by non-Shakers) for a while. Although the last Shaker passed away at Pleasant Hill in 1923, by the mid-20th century the Trustees’ Office then served as a restaurant owned and operated by Bettye and Robert Renfrew. Dick DeCamp, whose quote opens this blog, remembered the restaurant as a place where guests would “kill a bottle of whiskey” on the steps before going inside to eat.
The Trustees’ Office is also indelibly linked with the beginnings of the non-profit Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill that still preserves the property today—it was the first building purchased in the early 1960s and a crucial step in the restoration that took place throughout nearly two decades!
Today, the Trustees’ Office has modern amenities: electricity, forced air (heating and cooling), and indoor bathrooms. The building did not have these things in the 19th century, but if the Shakers had lasted any longer at this community than what they did, they definitely would have adapted with the times and had those ‘necessities’ installed.
Visit Shaker Village throughout the year to explore the intricacies of the Trustees’ Office, or join a special Behind Closed Door program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February to learn more about the unique history of this building. Check the daily schedule for exact tour time!
Lithograph of the Lick Observatory and telescope mentioned in a sermon printed in The Manifesto in 1891. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The Shakers were no strangers to celestial phenomena like the solar eclipse that will cast fleeting darkness over portions of states from South Carolina to Oregon—including Kentucky—on August 21. Their journals recount star patterns, moon phases, comet sightings, and solar and lunar eclipses. To some Shakers, the spectacles of space exemplified core principles of Shaker theology and culture like order, union and harmony; to others it was seen as nonsensical and foolish. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the majority of Shakers were supporters or skeptics of astronomy, records in the archives show cosmological rhetoric made its way into their schools, journals, eulogies, poetry and farming practices.
Unable to ignore the many astronomical wonders of the night sky, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded sightings of cosmic marvels ranging from eclipses and comets to moon irregularities. In each instance, they noted specific details about the time of day, duration, totality and any remarkable characteristics of the astronomical occurrences they observed:
March 19, 1843 At this time there is a comet to be seen which appeared about a week ago. It has an extraordinary long tail stretching nearly halfway across the hemisphere toward the south though not very brilliant (sic). It appears to be a stranger to astronomers.
March 25, 1857 The sun was eclipsed this eve. visable only for 8 or 10 minutes.
December 6, 1862 Last night we had a total eclipse of the moon.
August 7, 1869 At ½ past five o’clock in the evening the sun was total eclipsed.
June 24, 1881There is a large comet now to be seen in the N.E. [non periodic comet] We see it best at 3 in the morning than any other time.
October 4, 1882 A Comet is to be Seen at this time in an easterly direction. East South East. between 4 & 5 oclock A.M. among the longest & most brilliant ever Yet Seen A beautiful Sight!
February 24, 1897 The moons of Feb & March have laid on their backs and it has rained nearly the whole time in these two months.
May 28, 1900 Sun in eclipse from 6:30 to 8:30 A.M. about 9/10 totality.
In 1866 and 1867, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded seeing a “big circle” and “bright circle” around the moon—an optical phenomenon called a lunar halo in which light cast onto the moon’s surface by the sun refracts through ice crystals in Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in an eerie ring.
ASTRONOMY + SHAKER AGRICULTURE
The Shakers were very much in-tune with natural and celestial cycles and used their knowledge of astronomy—and, in some cases, astrology—to inform their agricultural practices. In a report written on behalf of the Mount Lebanon Shakers in July 1898, Calvin G. Reed tells how, at the recommendation of astronomers, the community had taken up a “free journey on the earth’s stupendous railway,” during which they observed six signs of the zodiac, including Leo. While they found “the Lion’s breath rather too hot for unalloyed comfort” in July, by September, the Shakers record a change in the seasons and agricultural schedule in a direct correlation to the stars, explaining, “this is the harvest season of the year as the constellation Libra or the Scales denotes, the season of gathering in the fruits of the earth.”[i]
Though not always pleased with the results, the Pleasant Hill Shakers placed a degree of confidence in the authority of almanacs, from which they gleaned weather forecasts, planting charts, tide tables and astronomical informational upon which to base their agricultural decisions. In August 1857, one journal keeper reflected upon the Almanac’s predictions of rain during the last quarter of the moon, troubled that if it rained as much as the publication claimed it would, based upon the moon phase, it would be “almost impossible” for them to thrash their grain.[ii]
ASTRONOMY + SHAKER SKEPTICS
While many Shakers found astronomy relevant in the realms of education, creative writing and farm work, not everyone was persuaded. Maintaining the belief that astral bodies had no effect on what happened on the earth below, some Pleasant Hill Shakers—particularly farmers—were adamant critics, filling journal pages with ridicule at any notion suggesting agriculturalists should put their trust in astronomical or astrological events. Particularly skeptical, farmer and journal keeper James Levi Ballance sized-up the influences of the moon on the Earth in these ways:
“…it is very inconsistent to imagine the moon has any influence over the weather….The moon must be very smart to make it rain or snow here and at the same time not suffer it to rain or snow there. The tides are also partial and local and of course they are not under the influence of the moon.”[i]
“Common sense and stubborn facts should have done away with the moon making it rain many years ago.”[ii]
“It did not rain at our farm 4 miles above us, there was a little sprinkle and here we were thoroughly saturated with water, they must have had a different moon from ours or else there is no truth in the moon making it rain (all a humbug).”[iii]
ASTRONOMY + SHAKER VILLAGE TODAY
The archival records at Shaker Village indicate the Shakers were just as intrigued by the wonders of space as modern spectators are today. Join us this winter at Shaker Village for a guided stargazing experience as part of our special $5 after 5pm series in January and February!
Plan you astronomical adventures in 2020 at Shaker Village with special programs led by the Bluegrass Amateur Astronomy Club, guided night hikes led by Shaker Village staff, and moonlight paddles along the Kentucky River!”
[i] “Notes about Home,” Calvin G. Reed, The Manifesto, Vol. 28, No. 11, November 1898 [ii] Journal, April 1, 1854-March 31, 1860, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 11, Filson Historical Society [i] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society [ii] Journal, November 23, 1871-July 31, 1880, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 14, Filson Historical Society [iii] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society
Historical content originally researched and written by Emalee Krulish in 2017.
“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
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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!
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!
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill | 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg KY 40330 | shakervillageky.org | 800.734.5611