Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Organizational Strategy
Have you visited Shaker Village in the last few years? If so, the fact that we’ve made BIG changes in how we interpret the history of the Pleasant Hill Shakers is no surprise. For those who need a recap, this article is a good primer!
The history of the Pleasant Hill Shakers is layered, diverse, and oftentimes surprising. We want our interpretation to share those qualities!
To achieve that goal we use exhibits, workshops, multimedia content, demonstrations, tours…well, LOTS of methods. Every visitor comes with their own perspectives and learning styles. We build experiences to connect to each of them.
Something New is in the Works
This summer a new experience is coming to Shaker Village. We thought it would be neat to give you a monthly glimpse behind the scenes as we develop this exhibition on…economics!
Okay. I know. Economics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, right?
But that’s where our incredible interpretive team comes in. You see, it is actually really interesting to consider how a communal society that didn’t believe in personal possessions got so darn good at making and selling things to the public.
And there are many more layers to this story that need peeling back.
For example: How did gender equality in Shaker society play into their business operations? Did the Pleasant Hill Shakers have any connection to enslaved labor? What happened when their population dwindled and more non-Shakers were making some “Shaker” products than Shakers themselves?
And perhaps the most important question of all: What can we, who live in an ultra-modern order everything online “I don’t care where it comes from as long as it’s convenient” global marketplace, possibly learn from the economy of a small, agrarian village?
These questions and more will be addressed when Local Economies, Global Impacts opens this summer!
The 1845 East Family Brethren’s Shop and the 1855 East Family Sisters’ Shop will host the new exhibition. Each were important workshops, and offered other unique contributions to the economy of the village.
With the support of this grant Shaker Village has been able to conduct valuable new research about the economics of the Pleasant Hill Shakers that will come alive as part of the exhibit.
Guests will learn about the village trustees, trading deacons and office sisters. The exhibit will open a new window into the operation of mills, the management of natural resources, the work that happened in Shaker workshops, the routes travelled by trading deacons along roads and waterways, and the stories of the men and women who put their hands to work to sustain their community’s economy.
Local Economies, Global Impacts is currently in an early design phase, where we draft narrative flow within each building, and plan methods for sharing each portion of the content. Artifact displays, tactile interactives, murals, multimedia content and other methods are being fit together in the plan like an integrated puzzle.
Over the next two months we will finalize our designs, write the final content and produce graphics. Then we begin fabrication, followed by installation.
We hope you’ll come along for the ride with us each month as we update our progress. This summer, when you visit the exhibit, you’ll feel like you were there to help create it!
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.
“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.
“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)
“…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!
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.
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!
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!
As we have shared in previous posts, Shaker Village recently completed a large-scale preservation project in the “spiritual center” of the Village, focusing on the 1820 Meeting House and the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling. While the historic buildings of Pleasant Hill make an immediate impact on visitors, the artifacts, images, documents and interpretative materials that can be placed inside the buildings really bring the Village and the Shaker story to life.
A great example of how preservation efforts and interpretive programming go hand-in-hand to share the legacy of the Shakers is the Music Program that occurs twice daily in the 1820 Meeting House. The Meeting House was used by the Shakers as a place for the entire community to gather for Sunday worship. Music and dance were integral parts of their worship activities, and the Meeting House was specifically designed with this in mind. Just as the Shakers once sang and moved through this space, our music interpreters do so today. These programs not only tell the spiritual story of the Shakers, they illustrate the stunning engineering of the building in a way that leaves every visitor awestruck.
It is our goal to provide a guest experience across the historic site that inspires our guests through stories, activities and exhibits that connect to Shaker heritage and American history. With 3,000 acres and 34 historic structures, providing a cohesive and comprehensive guest experience takes a lot of thought and care to develop. Over the past few years, we have taken multiple steps to conduct and prepare a long-range interpretative plan for permanent and temporary exhibits, as well as outdoor interpretative signage and interactives. This program planning process was underway and ran parallel to the preservation of the Centre Family Dwelling and Meeting House, another example of how preservation and programming work together at Shaker Village.
The preservation of the “spiritual center” of Pleasant Hill was funded by a generous gift from the Lilly Endowment and through a Community Development Block Grant from the State of Kentucky. Shaker Village relies on charitable giving for the implementation of most large-scale preservation projects that take place on the property. The same is true for many programming projects, such as the site-wide interpretative plan and corresponding exhibits.
One of the first steps in this interpretive plan was to consolidate daily admissions, overnight check-in, a craft shop and additional historic interpretation into one, easy to use Welcome Center for village guests. Through a generous gift from the James Graham Brown Foundation, the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop underwent exterior preservation work and an interior remodel to become the “jumping off point” for guests to discover the legacy of the Kentucky Shakers at Pleasant Hill.
Over the last two years, Shaker Village has also received funding for the creation of the interpretative plan through private donations from generous individuals. The resulting plan, titled The Enduring Legacy of Shakers in America, is a comprehensive exhibition staged with sub-themes and topics that can be implemented across the site as buildings and spaces are readied, and funding is available.
At this time Shaker Village is raising money for the implementation of the permanent exhibits that will go in the 1820 Meeting House and the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling. These exhibitions are vital to our mission because they will provide both guided and self-guided visitors a new, and at times unexpected, interpretation of the Shakers and their community at Pleasant Hill. They will also engage our visitors in examining political climates, cultural shifts and economic trends through the 19th and early 20th Century, and deriving lessons from this history that are relevant and impactful to modern audiences.
You can help make these exhibits possible with a tax-deductible donation of any size to the Exhibits Fund. By making a gift as a new donor or by increasing your renewal gift, you can double your impact this fall. Your donation will be matched dollar for dollar by the Shaker Village Board of Trustees!
As a guest of Shaker Village, you support this nonprofit organization and its mission every time you shop, dine, stay, explore or donate. We rely on, and appreciate, your generosity. It really does take a village to preserve and share the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers!
For more information on our programs, services and other philanthropic opportunities, please call the Development Office at 859.734.1545.
William Updike, Vice President of Natural and Cultural Resources
Shaker Village has over 25 miles of historic rock fence along its boundary and within its 3,000 acre property. This fence was originally constructed, primarily, in the 1840s. The Shakers of Pleasant Hill paid a rate of $1,000 per mile to non-Shaker masons who built over 40 miles of rock fence. Standing without the assistance of mortar or other bonding agents, well-built dry-stacked rock fences can last hundreds of years!
Even though these fences are built to last, fence failures or “breaks” can still be caused by many factors. Sometimes trees fall across them, tree roots up-heave the fences from below, heavy rains can soften the earth and wash-out sections, livestock or other animals rub against the fences and in winter the freezing and thawing of the earth cause movement in the stone.
Our team is constantly at work repairing these rock walls. This year alone, we have repaired 20 sections, measuring 136 feet of wall! In the last five years we repaired 245 sections measuring over 2000 feet!
Our efforts have focused on the most highly visible fences around the Village. We recognize that with so many miles of fence there are sections we haven’t gotten to yet, and with all the rain we have had over the last couple years it seems like there are new breaks occurring regularly!
Wondering how can you help? This fall we are partnering with the Dry Stone Conservancy to hold a workshop on repairing and maintaining rock fence. The workshop will be held October 19 and 20 here at Shaker Village!