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?

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.

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.