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?

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.

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.”

A Night of Terror

Jacob Glover, PhD. Program Manager

“About midnight last night, a band of mounted highway robbers, 6 in number, entered our quiet village, armed to the teeth, & proceeding to the Post Office…” – April 29, 1865

Traditional accounts of the American Civil War often end on April 9, 1865. On that famous date, of course, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

The violence unleashed by the war, however, could not be stopped by a formal surrender. In the months following the war in Kentucky, guerilla bands and outlaws held sway in many areas of the Commonwealth. Although the freedmen and their families were often the targets of these vigilante groups, on other occasions the Shakers at Pleasant Hill drew their attention.

On the night of April 29, 1865, that is exactly what happened. The lengthy journal entry below gives an idea as to the desperate situation in which the Shakers found themselves.

Pictured here, late in his life, J.R. Bryant was in charge of the Village’s finances, and a target of outlaws on the night of April 29, 1865. Bryant raised the alarm at the Centre Family and saved the community a great deal of harm.
Photo c. 1870s.

“April 29, 1865. About midnight last night, a band of mounted highway robbers, 6 in number, entered our quiet village, armed to the teeth, & proceeding to the Post Office… Every apartment in the house was forced open in a vain search for pelf; & being providentially disappointed in their booty, which did not exceed 30 dollars, they sallied forth, & surrounded the brick Office, the leader of the band giving orders to take Bryant the Trustee, dead or alive – to force him to deliver the contents of his coffers – when they demanded entrance, & commenced battering at the front door & smashed in a window, cursing & threatening vengeance. Meantime J. R. Bryant escaped at a back door, leaving M. Burnett & 3 or 4 sisters the only occupants, & gave the alarm at the Center Family, but being discovered by the sentinels, was fired on several times by these foul fiends in human shape, yet, by the protecting hand of God, escaped unhurt.

Looking down the Turnpike, the Post Office is the small building to the left of the large Trustee’s Office. Although the bandits initially forced their way into the Post Office, they later turned their attention to the Trustee’s Office and the person of J.R. Bryant. Photo c. late 1800s.

When some of the brethren arrived at the scene of the action, they were halted & threatened with immediate death by these demons, if they approached. The alarm was then rang which aroused the whole village in a state of excited alarm which so frightened these fiends incarnate, that they fled to their horses & beat a hasty retreat, firing a volley at every moving object & some of the buildings as they went. One ball passed through the side glass of the front door of the Office, & through the sash over the door at the far end of the hall, glancing the ceiling penetrating the dining room door at the extreme end of the porch… No clue to the diabolical traitors.”

Although no one was physically hurt, I can’t help but wonder what must have been going through the minds of the pacifist Shakers during this eventful and terrifying night. Such terror was not representative of life at Pleasant Hill throughout the nineteenth century, but the trying times of the Civil War seem to have left an impression everywhere.

Mother Ann’s Mission: Calling and Controversy

Rebekah Roberts, Program Specialist

Women in the 1700s were often considered the possessions and servants of men, but Ann Lee violated social norms, becoming one of only ten female preachers identified in the United States before 1800. As leader of the Shaker movement, she proclaimed a dual-natured Father and Mother God as a basis for gender equality.

Manchester, England c. 1750

Born February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee began working twelve-hour shifts in a textile mill as a child. She never attended school, and remained illiterate her entire life. The second-oldest of eight children, Ann Lee played a vital role in raising her younger siblings and ultimately watched her mother die in childbirth.

An unflattering drawing of Ann Lee from “The Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy 1865-1873”

Ann Lee was active in a group called the “Shaking Quakers” when she was forced to marry. She protested this act by never assuming her husband’s surname. She detested the concept of intercourse from a young age, and the inability to avoid the dangers of childbirth. She barely survived the birth of her four children, three of whom died in infancy, and a daughter who passed at age six. Ann Lee believed that these traumatic experiences were God’s judgement and responded with a vow of celibacy, turning away from sex and all other worldly desires.

Ann Lee took her message to the streets, proselytizing in public spaces and interrupting church services, which resulted in her repeated incarceration. While imprisoned, she envisioned God directing an escape from religious persecution in the New World. She rallied eight followers and they settled in New York in 1774 amidst the burgeoning American Revolution.

The Vankleek House in Poughkeepsie, NY, where Ann Lee was lodged for a night prior to being sent to the Poughkeepsie Jail, in 1776. Image from “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” by Benson John Lossing, 1851.

In 1781, Ann Lee left with two disciples on a missionary journey throughout New England. In opposition to the traditional church, she rejected written creeds in favor of reflection and ongoing revelation. Ann Lee was described as direct but nurturing, like a mother, and developed personal relationships with followers, referred to as her children.

Mother Ann was arrested and accused of being an enemy of the patriots. She was thought to be a man in disguise, or a witch, and was dragged from her bed and beaten. Public meetings included converts who confessed their sins to Mother Ann, alongside mobs organized by churches and ruffians alike, who drove the Shakers out of towns. Everywhere she traveled, Mother Ann attracted an audience.

Ann Lee’s grave site, Watervliet, NY.

Mother Ann’s message was simple: Forsake all worldly pleasures and find salvation in the Father and the Mother. This message captivated women of the 18th century. Women had no body autonomy in marriage, nor assured choice in husband. Monetary earnings from a job went to the husband, and women had no legal shelter from abuse, nor right to her children if the husband left. Women could not purchase land.

The radical commune celebrating a dual-natured God embodied independence for 18th century women, who had the opportunity to live as equals in Shaker society.

In 1784, the local newspaper published the death of “Ms. Lee, known by the appellation of the Elect Lady, or Mother Zion, and the head of that people called Shakers.”