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

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.

“There being a contagious disease…”

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

Social distancing.
Stay at home orders.
No school.
No worship.
Essential activities only.
Take care of each other.

Sound familiar? While this sounds a lot like things that we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, all those things actually refer to the lives of the Pleasant Hill Shakers from December 1850-February 1851. In mid-December, a few of the folks in the Centre Family came down with a sickness, and within a week it was confirmed to be smallpox. On December 18, the East Family Deaconess recorded this:

There being a contagious disease prevailing at the Centre Family at this time called the varioloid, it was concluded this morning not to take up school any more for the present & discontinued all intercourse between the Families as far as practicable, so as to prevent the spreading any further if possible…and now all business is mainly suspended in that Family except to cook and wash and take care of the sick etc.” (East Family Deaconess Journal, Filson Historical Society Shaker Collection v.4)

While the village leadership moved quickly, they weren’t able to totally contain it – cases later arose in the East and West families.  In the following weeks, the Shakers tried to navigate their daily routines while managing this illness.  School for the boys and girls were both suspended.  Normal routines were disrupted for weeks, and nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly Sunday worship in the Meeting House.  This was an important time for the entire community to meet, and yet week after week journal entries on Sunday read “Meeting at home.”

On January 28, good news finally arrived…but with an exception:  “Tuesday 8 oclock P.M.  We assembled in the meeting room, and the Elders informed us that the varioloid had so far subsided that there but three cases remaining, one in each Family, and they were kept to themselves, so that it was thought to be safe for the Families to resume their usual intercourse and pursuits.  (A separation having been kept since about the 18th Ult., to prevent the disease from spreading.)  But it was not thought to be prudent to assemble at the meeting house next Sabbath &c.”(FHS Shaker Collection v.7)  It would be March 1, almost 3 months in total, until they collectively met at the Meeting House again.  From there, life appeared to return to normal.

Our experience with COVID-19 is not the first time that a disease has shaken life at Pleasant Hill.  While it isn’t exactly the same (a localized smallpox outbreak vs. a worldwide pandemic), there are similarities in our experiences.  So, I’d like to notice a few lessons that the Pleasant Hill Shakers can teach us as we start to transition into a new phase of life at Pleasant Hill.

It’s Okay to Go Slow

As noted above, on January 28, the Ministry felt like it was ok to resume normal activities, except for assembling at the Meeting House. It would be another month until that happened. This makes total sense, considering what we know about Shaker worship – lots of people in close quarters, singing, dancing, shouting, shaking. Participating in this activity would likely be worse than a bunch of modern teenagers spending their spring break together at the beach. Instead, the Ministry chose a course of deliberate, phased reopening, to use terms that we are used to today.

It’s Okay to Modify Your Behavior

One o’clock, P.M. Meeting at home by reason of affliction, the varioloid still prevailing at the Center family.  We had an orderly meeting, attended with considerable life and zeal…We made no donation of clothing for fear of conveying the varioloid or small pox to such as might receive them.” (25 December 1850, FHS.v.7)

Just because they couldn’t meet at the Meeting House, didn’t mean they lost their roles or identities as Shakers.  They met at home for 3 months, still worshiping with those that were able.  They even suspended the donation to the poor on Christmas, an important yearly practice, because of this.  They modified their behavior because the unique circumstances demanded it, and once it was over, they were luckily able to resume their standard routines.

Clean!

This morning the Center Family took their bed clothes & wooling clothing to the fulling mill  to wash & clear out the small pox and the next day they went on washing the walls of their dwelling house and taking up carpets brushing & cleaning them and every thing else until they had cleared off every thing that was tainted with the pox.” (15 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society Collection)

Don’t Forget About Others

I went to the East House to see the sick folks and found them bad- indeed Elizabeth was bedfast, Electa’s life was fast running away with a cancer, Triphena was also confined to the room with a swelling on her thigh, John Badget had been confined to his room for some time with a cut on his foot and was now fast able to walk about a little, Samuel was quite weak & his sense much scattered but still went to the shop.” (3 December 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

Polly Harris lived in the West Family.  She didn’t have to go to East Family (and she probably shouldn’t have), but I imagine she wanted to check on them.  Other times, medications and vaccinations were supplied to those in need.  Others had to chip in and help with jobs that couldn’t be done because of sickness.  And during some of the home meetings, they would send their love to those who were sick in other families.  The point is that they didn’t forget about the others around them who might need assistance.

Remember, There’s a Lot Going On

In consequence of the small pox  The Ministry & the Center Family alone attended the funeral of our Worthy Brother [Abram Wilhite] at 8 o’clock in the morning It being a very pleasant pretty day for the season of the year the Brethren & Sisters all went to the Grave yard that ware able.”  (11 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

When she visited the East Family, Polly Harris found a lot of sickness that wasn’t smallpox.  Then on top of this, there were members of the community dying, some from smallpox, but also from other causes, like Abram Wilhite.  Some were unable to attend the funeral for obvious reasons, but according to another journal, some didn’t attend because they were “afraid of the pox.”  Add this to the already difficult disruption of daily lives that were normally very structured.  I can imagine this being extremely overwhelming to many of the Shakers. 

As an extension to the previous point, don’t forget that others around you are living through a lot right now – sickness, death, unemployment, fear.  Then add the growing civil and racial unrest in our country to the mix.  No matter how you experience this, don’t forget about the others around you processing the exact same things, but perhaps in very different ways.  There is a lot going on right now.

Be Thankful

One oclock Meeting to day was held at home…We was called upon in the commencement of the meeting by the elder brother to be mindful to walk thankfully and humbly before God for the great blessing we now enjoy of good health while so many of our worthy brethren and sisters are suffering in the other families from the destestible disease Small pox, bed colds &c.” (12 January 1851, FHS v.6)

When “Normal” Returns – Make it Memorable

Holy Mother Ann’s Birth – This day was kept in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother’s birth  we assembled to the meeting house at the usual hour one, where we met the good ministry and the church at large, there beloved Elder James addressed the assembly thus, “Beloved friends, brethren & sisters, I feel thankful to meet with you again in this most favored and sacred place, after an absence of near three months, and will be well for each one if they have come prepared to commemorate in truth and reality our Mothers birth, mission &c, and do honor to the cause of salvation as made manifest to us, her children through her painful travel and soul sufferings, we therefore combine together to sing dance and give honor, praise and glory to her most sacred and worthy Name…” (1 March 1851, FHS v.6)

We then went forth in the march & circular dance, being informed at the same time that the guardian angels that attended Jesus Christ and Mother Ann while on earth were present, together with a number of our deceased friends who once lived in Pleasant Hill.” (1 March 1851, FHS v.7)

Mother Ann’s birthday was always a notable day for the Shakers.  They sang and danced, and were even “visited” by a host of angels and spirits.  While this might have been a pretty normal occurrence for this time period, I believe that the day as a whole had a memorable quality because of the events of the previous three months.  If you could talk to the Shakers who were there that day, what would they remember?

I don’t pretend to know exactly what the future holds, but we can be encouraged by the experiences of the Pleasant Hill Shakers 170 years ago.  They can give us a lot to think about.  Don’t forget that even though they lived communally, separated from the outside world to a degree, they were people just like us trying to navigate all the challenges that this world threw at them.  I believe, on some level, we can all sympathize with the sentiment expressed by this writer in February 1851:

Our meetings from the last date have been orderly and ordinary up to the first of March.  All seemed to be eager and anxiously waiting for a cessation of the disease, and a restoration to health, a restoration to free intermingling one with another in sociality and friendship and especially to meet again in the sacred worship of God, there to embrace each other in the sweetest enjoyment of gospel love and affection.” (FHS v.6)

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.”