Preserving the Shaker Legacy

Melissa Williams, Development Coordinator

It’s fascinating to look through photographs from the time between when the Shakers closed  their covenant at Pleasant Hill in 1910 and the opening of the Village in 1968 as an educational nonprofit organization. These photographs tell a five-decade story of change, care, preservation and deterioration, as private citizens took ownership and utilized many Shaker buildings for their homes and businesses.

Despite the changing uses of the buildings, the legacy of the Shaker community, their faith, and their values have endured at Pleasant Hill. Local residents and those who passed through the Village on U.S. Highway 68 recognized that  Pleasant Hill represented something very important, and it needed to be preserved and shared with future generations.

Preservation efforts gained momentum during the 1950s as private citizens came together in a more organized way. In 1961 – 60 years ago –our non-profit organization was formalized and incorporated. Tasked with the enormous undertaking of acquiring the remaining Shaker structures and the land previously held by the Shakers, the organization set to work raising funds and restoring the buildings to their mid-19th century aesthetics.


Earl D. Wallace, chairman at Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Inc., breaks ground at the former Shaker community to celebrate the beginning of a 12-month construction and restoration project costing more than $1 million. June 21, 1966. The Courier-Journal
.

The initial restoration and preservation of the Village is an inspiring story,  illustrating the allure Pleasant Hill has held since it was settled by the Shakers 216 years ago. But the $1 million restoration project carried out in the 1960s is just the beginning of the preservation of the site. In the decades that followed,  our nonprofit has worked to preserve the restoration, with this work continuing today

Over the last decade, Shaker Village craftsman have conducted at least $1 million of work each year to ensure the long-term preservation of the 34 historic buildings on the site, as well as the cultural landscape. Our long-term historic preservation plan is based on this level of spending on an annual basis.

A price tag of at least $1 million a year seems like a lot of money, so how is that money spent?

The most immediately recognizable preservation projects are those that include a comprehensive work plan including the roof, doors, windows, interior woodwork, exterior siding, and masonry of the building. Since 2016, Shaker Village has completed such projects for the 1815 Carpenters’ Shop, 1820 Meeting House, 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling, 1833 Water House and 1860 Brethren’s Bath House.

East Family Dwelling during renovation.
East Family Dwelling with new roof.

Currently Shaker Village craftsmen are undertaking a multi-year preservation project for the 1817 East Family Dwelling that began in 2019. If you have stayed this building’s overnight rooms in the last decade, you’ve seen firsthand the condition of the windows, which is one area of concern for this 16,000 sq. ft. building. Our carpenters and painters spent most of 2020 methodically working through repairs to window frames and sills on about one-third of the 79 existing windows; this work will continue until all of the windows have been restored. In 2020, our crew also completed repairs to several of the building’s doors and the wood shake roof was replaced. In the latter half of 2021, you’ll see scaffolding reappear around this building as stone masons begin the task of repointing and cleaning the exterior masonry.

While the historic preservation plan lays out 18 additional and upcoming comprehensive projects, preservation work happens on a smaller scale across the Village throughout the year.

Painters working on interior walls.
Painters working on building exterior.

Each year the SVPH painters repair loose plaster on interior walls. The plaster will become loose over time due to regular use, environmental factors such as humidity, and water leaks created by deteriorating roofs, windows and doors as well as by leaks in the HVAC systems that serve the historic buildings.

Meeting House door being repaired.
Repaired door at the Meeting House.

The carpenters repair doors and thresholds. Doorways become damaged over time by regular use, water and humidity, sunlight and wind.

Rock wall in need of repair.
Rock wall all after repairs.

The stone mason repairs breaks in the historic stone fences. Changing temperatures slowly cause the rocks to shift and then topple. Sometimes human interactions also damage these landscape features. In 2020, we repaired 35 breaks in the fences ranging from 3 feet to 10 feet in length. Each linear foot costs between $40 and $60 to repair. 

Buildings and Grounds Manager Mike Brown receives an award for excellence in maintenance.

The maintenance team keep the mechanical systems working.  Shaker Village has a mix of systems that provide modern heating, air conditioning, and hot water to the historic buildings: The East Family buildings, Centre Family Dwelling, the Meeting House, the 1813 Old Ministry’s Shop and the 1824 Tanyard are heated and cooled by geothermal systems, while the West Family buildings, the 1839 Trustees’ Office and 1821 Ministry’s Workshop are serviced by boiler-chiller plants. These plants were originally installed in the 1960s and while some of the components of both plants have been upgraded in recent years, these systems are challenging to maintain.

Our nonprofit made a commitment to preserve the historic buildings and the cultural landscape when it formed in 1961. Over the last six decades, Shaker Village has carried through with that commitment. This work has been made possible by donors who have supported this powerful place with charitable gifts, and by our guests who have stayed overnight, dined at the Trustees’ Table, shopped and explored. The preservation of Pleasant Hill is work that will never be completely done, however, we are committed to doing our part as the stewards of Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark.

Learn more about preservation at Shaker Village and how you can get involved.

Ever wonder what lies behind a closed door? Learn how our guided tours take you to rarely-seen areas of the Village.

Communal Workspace – Then & Now

The Ministry’s Workshop at 200

Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

The Ministry’s Workshop today.

“October 26, 1820: the Ministry’s Shop was raised and they moved into it the 9th of April following.”  Origins and Progress of the Society at Pleasant Hill

Members of the Pleasant Hill Ministry used the Ministry’s Workshop as an office space for almost 80 years.  The Ministry, composed of two men and two women, provided spiritual leadership for the community, kept journals, conducted the official correspondence for the Village, and performed physical labor to set as an example of industry for the other Shakers.

The Ministry’s Workshop is conveniently located in the center of the Village, right next door to the Meeting House, where members of the Ministry had living quarters on the second floor. The Ministry’s Workshop embodied the secular work of the leadership while the Meeting House represented the spiritual role.

200 years later, we are still using the Ministry’s workshop as office space! Now home to Shaker Village’s Program Team, Farm Team and Preserve Team, this building continues to provide necessary space, in a convenient location, to keep this Village running. 

Members of the Program Team attending a training next to the Water House.

The Program Team is tasked with interpreting the story of the Shakers for the public. Whether through programming or exhibitions, the team works hard to research and share the rich history of this community.

As a member of the Program Team, I feel honored to spend my workdays in a building that holds so much history, and my colleagues feel the same way. Not only is it a functional workspace, it is after all a Shaker structure with pegs and all, it is an inspiring structure as we are constantly reminded of the important legacy that surrounds us.  It is empowering that we continue to use this building as a communal workspace where we collaborate on effective ways to share the Shaker experience with visitors. It also doesn’t hurt to have multiple windows in every room!

Program Team office space inside the Ministry’s Workshop today.

Spring Ephemerals on The Preserve

Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager

Spring is here and our forests have once again been transformed by delicate little wildflowers. Every spring some slopes are lucky enough to be carpeted in colorful, diverse blooms that seem to appear out of nowhere. If you revisit these spots in midsummer you’ll be hardpressed to find a single sign the dramatic display was ever there.

Many of our earliest flowers are considered “ephemerals.” They emerge early, before the trees have leaves. They flower quickly, create seed and then they disappear. But “ephemeral” does not mean short lived. Our spring wildflowers are mostly perennials, growing slowly, coming above ground and gathering their annual supply of sunlight during that short period of time between when the days get longer and when the forest gets too dark and shady.

Sessile Trillium
A small patch of sessile trillium.

One of our more common spring ephemerals is Trillium sessile (uncreatively given the common name of sessile trillium). Sessile trillium is often just a few inches high and has erect red flowers with three petals and three sepals sitting directly atop a whorl of three leaves. The “tri” in trillium refers to this three-ness while “sessile” refers to how the flower sits directly on the leaves, without a stalk to support it. The dark red flowers have a slightly unpleasant stink which attracts their primary pollinators of flies and beetles. The resulting seeds have a fatty appendage attached called an elaiosome, which attracts ants and wasps to carry the seed away from the mother plant.

Once an ant carries off the seed, it will take two seasons of cold for it to germinate. In its first year of growth the new seedling stays completely underground, slowly creating a root system. The year after that, a single leaf emerges. If enough energy is gathered, it will be slightly bigger the next year. In fact, it could take 10 years for a trillium to grow strong enough to produce its first flower. Some plants can live to be 25 years old if conditions are good.

One mature “mother trillium” (5+ years old), an immature three-leaved trillium (4+ years old) and a dense patch of single-leaved trilliums (3+ years old).

Repeated trampling, grazing or picking can kill any plant, but spring ephemerals are especially vunerable because of how slowly they grow. So always stay on trail and only take photographs, but be sure to enjoy the display soon before it disappears for the year. And, if you miss your chance this year, don’t be too sad… they’ll be back next year, just a little bit bigger.

Visiting New England Shaker Sites, Part II

Jacob Glover, PhD, Director of Public Programs and Education

A few weeks ago we began our blog series on our trip to Shaker sites in New York and New England in February and March 2020. Our trip was just days before the country came grinding to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, we are recounting our adventure to Massachusetts, New York and then back to Massachusetts to complete one whirlwind of a Saturday!

With Watervliet in the rearview mirror, we headed east towards Pittsfield, MA, and Hancock Shaker Village. Along the way we passed the location of the Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker community, a destination that we would return to later in the day. At Hancock, we were graciously welcomed by several staff members and a volunteer, and we were even provided special access to view the Shaker gift drawings in their Collection!

The Shakers produced most of these “gift drawings” during the Era of Manifestations in the mid-19th century. They are a wonderful example of American folk art, and we felt lucky to view them up close.

While the sunshine was abundant by the early afternoon, it remained quite cold as we toured the beautiful grounds at Hancock. Originally founded in the late 1780s, Hancock grew to more than 300 Believers and 3,000 acres by the 1830s. As with most other Shaker communities, decline in the late nineteenth century led to the selling of outlying lands and diminishing numbers. Despite this, Hancock remained an active Shaker community until 1959—nearly fifty years after the closing of the covenant at Pleasant Hill.

Inside the 1826 Round Stone Barn – one of the architectural wonders we visited on our trip.

Hancock today is very well preserved, with 20 existing Shaker buildings, a modern welcome center, a working farm, programs and exhibits. Although many of the structures were awe-inspiring, the 1826 Round Stone Barn is the unforgettable cornerstone of the experience at Hancock. After a few hours on the grounds and one more trip to the gift shop, we said our goodbyes, regretful that we had so little time to explore the beautiful village.

Then we backtracked over the mountains and into eastern New York for a quick afternoon jaunt to the Historic Mount Lebanon Site. Although today many of the Shaker buildings have been repurposed into a school and an eco-Sufi community, the Shaker style is evident throughout.

The original seat of Shaker government, Mount Lebanon was active from the early 1780s until the 1940s when the community sold most of their land and buildings to the Darrow School—a school that just happened to win a basketball championship the day of our visit! Today, the Historic Mount Lebanon Site only offers self-guided tours and hiking, but if you ever have the chance we highly recommend stopping by to see the Great Stone Barn. It is easily one of the most impressive architectural marvels we have ever seen.

Photos don’t do it justice, but hopefully you get the idea of the scale of the Great Stone Barn. It’s an absolutely massive and impressive structure.

Having been thoroughly impressed, but also cut to the bone by the howling wind and the fading sun, we hopped back on the road and made our way to Boston, MA for the night. There would be no rest for the weary; however, as we had to be at Shaker Meeting at Sabbathday Lake the next morning at 10 a.m. sharp. We would end up cutting it close…VERY close!

Check back in a couple of weeks for the next installment of our adventure!

For more information on Hancock Shaker Village, please visit https://hancockshakervillage.org.

For more information on the Historic Mount Lebanon Site, please visit https://www.shakermuseum.us/mount-lebanon-historic-site/.​

African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill: Patsy Roberts (Williamson)

Holly Wood, Music Program Specialist

“Mother’s Good Drink” note the attribution in the corner which says, “Patsy Williamson coloured Sister.”

Born January 7, 1791, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, Patsy Roberts or Patsy Roberts Williamson belonged to a household originally from Rockingham County. The Roberts family moved to Madison County, Kentucky and by August of 1808 21-year-old Eunice (Betsy) Roberts, the oldest of the Roberts siblings, arrived at Pleasant Hill.

She was followed by Susannah in January of 1809. Susannah was listed in the Pleasant Hill records as a twin, born January 7, 1791 –the same birth date as Patsy. What is most interesting is that Patsy is listed as black and enslaved while Susannah is not. Patsy is the only Roberts recorded to have been of African descent. 

According to Shaker records, Patsy Roberts joined the society of Shakers at Pleasant Hill in 1809, three years before moving to the Village. In the fall of 1812, Namon Roberts and his wife Jinny Roberts moved to Pleasant Hill with the rest of their household. Eunice (Betsy), Susannah and Patsy were the only Roberts to sign the covenant making them full members of the Church.

In January of 1815, Namon and wife Jinny made the decision to “return to the world” with their five younger children. Before Namon Roberts departed he offered Patsy for sale and the Shakers purchased her legal freedom so that she could remain with them.  

Patsy lived 51 years as a Believer experiencing the strong bonds of sisterhood as she worked and worshiped at Pleasant Hill. Her faith was reflected in her songs that she composed with references to Mother Ann Lee, the joy she experienced in the dance and childlike simplicity and freedom she felt in worship. 

Music Program Specialist Holly Wood and Music Interpreter Sarah Porter sing “Pretty Mother’s Home.” The song was composed by Patsy Roberts Williamson.

On August 28, 1860, Patsy passed away in the East Family Dwelling after an undisclosed illness of four or five years. The writer of the journal described Patsy as being “zealous in the cause.”