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.

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!

“…the Department for the Sick…”

Jacob Glover, PhD. Program Manager

“…We visited the department for the sick which was under the charge of Jane Ryan.…The infirmary is in the dwelling house & adjoining the meeting room.” – Henry C. Blinn, “A Journey to Kentucky in the Year 1873”

Henry Blinn’s description of the infirmary in the Centre Family Dwelling at Pleasant Hill is a reminder of some of the unique healthcare challenges (and opportunities) that confronted the Shakers in nineteenth century America.

On one hand, as a concentrated community with members who lived in close proximity they were more subject to the quick spread of epidemic illness. On the other hand, however, Pleasant Hill also had members with medical training, and the village grew many of their own medicinal plants.

At different points in the history of Pleasant Hill, the Shakers in the community relied on healthcare provided by both Shakers, and non-Shakers. In this image, standing from left to right, are Dr. William Pennebaker, Francis Pennebaker (dentist) and a non-Shaker medical doctor. C. Late 19th Century.
Elizabeth Downing was one of many Shaker sisters who served as nurses at Pleasant Hill. According to Shaker rules, caregivers could only treat members of the same gender, although it is unclear if this dictate was always strictly followed.

In addition to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as the measles and cholera, Pleasant Hill also met the same healthcare challenges as all Americans of their day and age. Although many of the treatments provided during the nineteenth century would later prove to be ineffective (if not downright harmful), Pleasant Hill’s trained healthcare staff was vitally important to the overall well-being of the community.

Although hardly the only caregivers at Pleasant Hill, we wanted to highlight the following individuals and share some snippets of their stories.

The Downing Sisters

Three natural sisters who arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1840 as children all later served as nurses at Pleasant Hill. Their names were Eldress Elizabeth Ann Downing, Mary Ann Downing, and Rachel Downing. Although Rachel left the community in 1863, both Elizabeth Ann and Mary Ann remained faithful for the rest of their lives. In addition to serving as a nurse, Elizabeth was also a caretaker of children and worked in the preserve industry.

Dr. John Shain

Shain was an early Shaker convert who served as a physician at Pleasant Hill for 35 years. He promoted healthy eating and a vegetarian lifestyle. Shain was critical of doctors who practiced “heroic” medicine, and he spoke out against calomel, describing the popular mercury-based medicine as poison. Shain lived until the age of 91, and advocated drinking only ice water until the very end.

Dr. William Pennebaker spent nearly his entire life as a member of the Pleasant Hill community. Upon his death, he deeded a portion of the remaining Shaker property to open a school to provide education for underprivileged girls.

Dr. William F. Pennebaker

Pennebaker arrived at Pleasant Hill as a child in 1849. After expressing an interest in medicine, the Shakers reportedly sent him to Cincinnati for medical and surgical training. Pennebaker authored several nationally published medical articles, and in 1876 he became chief physician at Pleasant Hill. During this time, Pennebaker used his training to care for the community when an influenza epidemic swept through the village in 1892.

Writing to the Shakers’ magazine the Manifesto after the aforementioned influenza epidemic in 1892, Sister Mary Settles gratefully noted “our kind physician and brother, W. F. Pennebaker, has safely carried many patients through La Grippe as well as other ills. We feel thankful that so many of our aged ones have been spared to us.”

Pennebaker served his brethren and sisters faithfully until non-Shaker Dr. J. B. Robards and his wife took over care of the elderly members of the Centre Family in December 1910.

The Shaker Guest House

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“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.

Looking down from the third floor of the Trustees’ Office. The mesmerizing effect of the spiral stairs have amazed guests for over 180 years!

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!

The 1839 Trustees’ Office today.

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.

Circa 1960s. The Trustees’ Office served as the Shaker Guest House with various proprietors from the 1920s to the 1950s. When restoration efforts began in the 1960s, the building was operating as a restaurant. Many rooms were left open for guests to explore, and as you can see, some did more than that!

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!

2019 – A Year In Review

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.

The Farm

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!

The Preserve

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!