Stargazing Poets and Humbug Farmers

Lithograph of the Lick Observatory and telescope mentioned in a sermon printed in The Manifesto in 1891. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Shakers were no strangers to celestial phenomena like the solar eclipse that will cast fleeting darkness over portions of states from South Carolina to Oregon—including Kentucky—on August 21. Their journals recount star patterns, moon phases, comet sightings, and solar and lunar eclipses. To some Shakers, the spectacles of space exemplified core principles of Shaker theology and culture like order, union and harmony; to others it was seen as nonsensical and foolish. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the majority of Shakers were supporters or skeptics of astronomy, records in the archives show cosmological rhetoric made its way into their schools, journals, eulogies, poetry and farming practices.


Unable to ignore the many astronomical wonders of the night sky, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded sightings of cosmic marvels ranging from eclipses and comets to moon irregularities. In each instance, they noted specific details about the time of day, duration, totality and any remarkable characteristics of the astronomical occurrences they observed:

  • March 19, 1843 At this time there is a comet to be seen which appeared about a week ago. It has an extraordinary long tail stretching nearly halfway across the hemisphere toward the south though not very brilliant (sic). It appears to be a stranger to astronomers.
  • March 25, 1857 The sun was eclipsed this eve. visable only for 8 or 10 minutes.
  • December 6, 1862 Last night we had a total eclipse of the moon.
  • August 7, 1869 At ½ past five o’clock in the evening the sun was total eclipsed.
  • June 24, 1881 There is a large comet now to be seen in the N.E. [non periodic comet] We see it best at 3 in the morning than any other time.
  • October 4, 1882 A Comet is to be Seen at this time in an easterly direction. East South East. between 4 & 5 oclock A.M. among the longest & most brilliant ever Yet Seen  A beautiful Sight!
  • February 24, 1897 The moons of Feb & March have laid on their backs and it has rained nearly the whole time in these two months.
  • May 28, 1900 Sun in eclipse from 6:30 to 8:30 A.M. about 9/10 totality. 

In 1866 and 1867, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded seeing a “big circle” and “bright circle” around the moon—an optical phenomenon called a lunar halo in which light cast onto the moon’s surface by the sun refracts through ice crystals in Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in an eerie ring.


The Shakers were very much in-tune with natural and celestial cycles and used their knowledge of astronomy—and, in some cases, astrology—to inform their agricultural practices. In a report written on behalf of the Mount Lebanon Shakers in July 1898, Calvin G. Reed tells how, at the recommendation of astronomers, the community had taken up a “free journey on the earth’s stupendous railway,” during which they observed six signs of the zodiac, including Leo. While they found “the Lion’s breath rather too hot for unalloyed comfort” in July, by September, the Shakers record a change in the seasons and agricultural schedule in a direct correlation to the stars, explaining, “this is the harvest season of the year as the constellation Libra or the Scales denotes, the season of gathering in the fruits of the earth.”[i]

Though not always pleased with the results, the Pleasant Hill Shakers placed a degree of confidence in the authority of almanacs, from which they gleaned weather forecasts, planting charts, tide tables and astronomical informational upon which to base their agricultural decisions. In August 1857, one journal keeper reflected upon the Almanac’s predictions of rain during the last quarter of the moon, troubled that if it rained as much as the publication claimed it would, based upon the moon phase, it would be “almost impossible” for them to thrash their grain.[ii]


While many Shakers found astronomy relevant in the realms of education, creative writing and farm work, not everyone was persuaded. Maintaining the belief that astral bodies had no effect on what happened on the earth below, some Pleasant Hill Shakers—particularly farmers—were adamant critics, filling journal pages with ridicule at any notion suggesting agriculturalists should put their trust in astronomical or astrological events. Particularly skeptical, farmer and journal keeper James Levi Ballance sized-up the influences of the moon on the Earth in these ways:

“…it is very inconsistent to imagine the moon has any influence over the weather….The moon must be very smart to make it rain or snow here and at the same time not suffer it to rain or snow there. The tides are also partial and local and of course they are not under the influence of the moon.”[i]

“Common sense and stubborn facts should have done away with the moon making it rain many years ago.”[ii]

“It did not rain at our farm 4 miles above us, there was a little sprinkle and here we were thoroughly saturated with water, they must have had a different moon from ours or else there is no truth in the moon making it rain (all a humbug).”[iii]


The archival records at Shaker Village indicate the Shakers were just as intrigued by the wonders of space as modern spectators are today. Join us this winter at Shaker Village for a guided stargazing experience as part of our special $5 after 5pm series in January and February!

Plan you astronomical adventures in 2020 at Shaker Village with special programs led by the Bluegrass Amateur Astronomy Club, guided night hikes led by Shaker Village staff, and moonlight paddles along the Kentucky River!”

[i] “Notes about Home,” Calvin G. Reed, The Manifesto, Vol. 28, No. 11, November 1898
[ii] Journal, April 1, 1854-March 31, 1860, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 11, Filson Historical Society
[i] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society
[ii] Journal, November 23, 1871-July 31, 1880, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 14, Filson Historical Society
[iii] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society

Historical content originally researched and written by Emalee Krulish in 2017.

Harrowing History at Pleasant Hill

Early 20th century photography creates a spooky effect in this Village scene.

It’s that time of year when everyone is in a spooky mood. If you want to take part in the spirit of the season, there are so many ways to do it. Maybe something more low-key is your thing, like trick-or-treating or going to a Halloween party. But for others, this time of year is more about horror – haunted houses, scary movies, blood, guts, dismemberments, death and just general terror. This week, I’m feeling more inspired by the latter.

Death was a constant part of the landscape at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers, based on their interactions with the spiritual world, were quite in tune with this – when the spirits of departed Shakers visited, they couldn’t help but think about it. Also, many things happened in the physical world that were out of their control – scary situations that often (almost) resulted in death for both humans and animals. Many of these situations came about in ways that I would never think of, mainly because they resulted from situations that very few of us find ourselves in today. Like scenes from a scary movie, below you’ll find a sampling of journal excerpts documenting these very kinds of events. Have a terrifying week!

William Runyon went to the steam mill in Jessamine Co. and on his return home in attempting to drive into the boat it gave way, not being fastened, and let the horses into the river, one of which was killed by falling on the iron pin of the steering oar.

(October 31, 1846 – Filson Historical Society vol.4, East Family Deaconness Journal)

Louisiana Dunn who had been ailing some 5 or 6 months past, and had for a few days become delerious went from the Nourses room to the west Garett (Cen) and Jumped out of the window. She went feet foremost, as is most probable and strange to tell! appeared to be but little the worse of it so far. (September 3, 1847)

It is thot that Louisiana Dunn was much worse hurt by her leep than we were led to believe. It is now the general belief that she will not long survive it (September 4, 1847)

Louisiana Dunn who had been confined for several months to her bed and in addition to that had leaped from the Garret window of the Center House on the 3rd of Sept last, died at 1 oclock AM. She stayed at the old Center house 3rd story, NE Room.

(December 12, 1847 – Zachariah Burnett Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society)

Charles Crutcher a colored servant that we hired to help tend the Grist Mill was caught up by the band of the corn sheller while attempting to put it on, and whirled around the shaft with the velocity of mill gearing and horribly mangled and bruised, tho not killed, before the mill could be stopped. His left arm was broken in three places and the elbow dislocated, his leg broken, and feet badly bruised, etc.

(April 5, 1853 – Filson Historical Society vol.4, East Family Deaconness Journal)

Isaac Shields was run over by an ox wagon loaded with husked corn, and dangerously wounded, tho strange to tell, not killed.

(November 5, 1853 – Filson Historical Society vol.4, East Family Deaconness Journal)

Francis Shain was badly hurt.  He was blasting stone in the cistern at the Centre Family at the time.  He was in the act of throwing fire down on the load of powder when the place where he was standing fell in and he fell 19 feet down.  He might as well have fallen into a lion den for he had the load of powder to encounter.  It went off but fortunately did not hurt him.  However, he was badly hurt by the fall his leg being fractured and his ankle put out of place.

(June 6, 1855)

Charles Asher, a neighbor, while at work on our premises, was killed by the falling of a limb which partially lodged when he fell a tree; he survived the sad disaster about four hours, when he breathed his last.

(January 13, 1859 – East Family Journal, 1856-1871)

Ruffianly & Beastly conduct. Whilst Elder B. B. Dunlavy was laboring with Edward Cooper, & kindly advising him to reform his ways, or peaceably withdraw from the Society became enraged, & fell upon Elder B. beating him on the head & face, making some severe wounds, but not dangerous, the weapons used was a crutch & other Bludgeon – Brn Abm Kulp & James Shelton, being below & hearing the fuss, ran upstairs, (in the little stone shop) & took the would be assassin off & thereby saved Eld Benjamin’s life, who received the blows without offering resistence – The Brn sent the scamp down into the yard in some haste – who then made his way up to the Shoe Shop at the East family, & being requested by Elhanan Scott to withdraw he made a pass at him & inflicted a slight injury, when some young Brethren interfered & sent him out into the highway – & he left the premises

(November 29, 1870 – East Family Journal, 1856-1871)

Tragedy!  The most lamentable tragedy occurred to day at the West Family. A foolish feud that has been cherished for years between the Pennebaker & Spencer families culminated in a fracas in which Wm. Pennebaker inflicted a severe & dangerous wound on the left side of Henry Spencer’s neck, with a saddler’s tool called a half moon laying it open horizontally through the back of the ear, near 6 inches in length, & an inch & 1/2 or more in depth, which gaped open about the width of three fingers.  Fortunately, however, neither the leader nor the jugular vein was severed, so that he did narrowly escape with his life. Tho William claimed that it was accidentally done in self defense.

(January 7, 1871 – East Family Journal, 1856-1871)

DisasterMary Hardin (alias Stocton) & her husband Tabitha Harden & Lucinda Reynolds started in Stocton’s buggy down the River Road about Sunset to view the Towers and Scenery, and when they got down to the watering trough on the Cliff, Mary was driving and the man was walking behind and the man was walking behind, the horse shied and backed off the road.  Mary & the two Sisters Tabitha & Lucinda leaped out and the horse & buggy tumbled off backwards, crashing the buggy to pieces, but not injuring the horse or mare seriously.  The Sisters escaped with but little damage, while Mary is thought to be considerably injured internally.  The mare was thrown several rods down the precipice where she lodged & they tied her there till morning when she was brought up not much hurt.  A sad catasrophe!  But a happy escape considering the perilous situation.  Mary Stocton is an Ex-Shaker & came here on the 13th inst on a visit & was taken sick next day & has been unable to returne home till now.  This will detain her longer.

(August 21, 1875 – Filson Historical Society v.16, Ministerial Journal)

Disaster  Two Sisters Lucinda Reynolds, & Susan Murray with Charlie Kirk went to South toll gate to see the Gate Keeper Jo Trainer who was sick & coming home the horse ran down the hill, this side of the gate and turning out of the Road the Buggy turned over and bodly crippled Susan Murray, breaking her Collarbone with hip and side contusion, head cut & bruised up generally.  Lucinda & the boy were some bruised but not dangerously.

The buggy which belonged to the Office was left a perfect wreck.  The horse of A Kulp’s Diamond did not seem to be frightened buy stopped after breaking loose from the carriage & calmly surveyed the wreck.

(April 1, 1878 – Filson Historical Society v.16, Ministerial Journal)

Stock Five sheep were killed by a hay stack falling on them at the Upper Farm.  Loss $20.00.

(November 12 1879 – Filson Historical Society v.16, Ministerial Journal)

The CF had a fine thorough bred bull killed by lightning today.  He was Durham.  They called him Captain.  He was in his lot just North of the Center Barn.  This took place between 9 & 10 o’clock A.M. He is 7 years old worth $500 it is said.

(May 11, 1882 – Filson Historical Society v.20, Henry Daily Journal)

Patsy Gregory fell down the garret stairs at the Centre Family Wash House from top to bottom yesterday and received a ghastly wound or cut on her forehead and dislocated her right wrist and received many contusions and bruises all over. Lamentable misfortune for one so aged – 76 years old.

(October 8, 1883)

Sister Lyddie Coony caught fire to her apron while near the stove and was badly burned. She is now in the nurses room under treatment.

(April 9, 1889)

Abram Kulp, a highly respected member of the Society of Shakers, Pleasant Hill, died Sunday, aged sixty eight years. For more than sixty years he lived at the village and was for many years a farm deacon, understanding his business and attending to it with industry and energy. A week ago he got upon his faithful horse, Pilot and as if stricken with vertigo fell off on the other side and lay unconscious. He was soon taken to a comfortable room but never, again, became conscious. A month previous to this accident, he was found on the Pleasant Hill and Danville road, lying under his prostrate horse. So soon as Messrs. Caldwell and Brown had dragged him out. The horse, of his own volition got up. Brother Kulp’s left collar bone was broken but otherwise he seemed to be uninjured. The funeral was conducted, yesterday, in the solemn and simple manner of the Society and his remains were consigned to their last resting place by his father and other relatives who had been faithful Shakers. He was not only popular with his people but a favorite with all who knew him, many of our citizens attending the obsequies.

(March 31, 1897 – The Harrodsburg Sayings)

Sometimes, as you can see here, real history is just as harrowing as any made up story. Happy Halloween from Shaker Village!

Aaron Genton is the collections manager…

50 Things To Do at Shaker Village

Shaker Village opened its doors to guests from around the world in April 1968. Fifty years later, we celebrate those who came before us, and we continue to inspire generations! With 3,000 acres of discovery, there’s a lot to do around here on a daily basis. In honor of our 50 for 50 Campaign, here’s 50 things to try at Shaker Village:

  1. Go for a hike.
  2. Take a Discovery Tour.
  3. Listen to live music on the lawn.
  4. Meet the farm family.
  5. Go inside the greenhouse and see what’s growing.
  6. Take a hard hat tour to see what preservation work is currently happening.
  7. Go fishing.
  8. Take a riverboat ride on the Kentucky River.
  9. See a waterfall. You have to hike a little, but it’s worth it!
  10. Have a picnic.
  11. Watch the sunset from the amphitheater. It’s magical.
  12. Check out a bike and ride around the Village. They’re free!
  13. Visit the selfie exhibit.
  14. Relax.
  15. Pick out a handmade treasure or a Shaker Village souvenir in The Shops.
  16. Jump on board the horse-drawn wagon for a ride around The Historic Centre.
  17. Walk in the creek.
  18. Visit the bird blind.
  19. Talk to the gardeners and see what’s growing right now. Learn about how we use these fresh ingredients in our restaurant.
  20. Eat a meal at The Trustees’ Table.
  21. Walk up the iconic twin spiral staircases.
  22. Go kayaking on the Kentucky River.
  23. Walk to the cemetery.
  24. Attend a Shaker music performance in The Meeting House.
  25. Learn about food preservation in the Preserve Shop exhibit.
  26. Eat a piece of lemon pie.
  27. Drink a glass of wine or a cold beer on the Trustees’ Lawn.
  28. Take a peek at the rock walls. We have 25 miles of them.
  29. Taste an apple in the orchard.
  30. Visit the apiary to see where our honey comes from.
  31. Read the poem on the windowsill of room 174.
  32. Play with Boomer (our resident cat).
  33. Check out the Discovery Garden to learn about herbs.
  34. Relive your childhood on the tree swings.
  35. Identify plants and birds on The Trails.
  36. Go horseback riding.
  37. Take a hayride around the Village.
  38. Stargaze.
  39. Attend an Object + Stories program to learn more about our collection.
  40. Grab a handmade cookie from the Post Office shop.
  41. Find your way through the prairie maze.
  42. Climb to the highest point in Mercer County (top floor, Centre Family Dwelling).
  43. Find out who the Shakers were.
  44. Learn about our garden plans and how our farm animals have a job towards that bigger plan.
  45. Play checkers and more in the Cooper’s Shop.
  46. See wildflowers.
  47. Roast marshmallows around a fire pit.
  48. Visit with the artists in our Artist Studios and talk to them while they create.
  49. Take a selfie and post it using #shakervillageky.
  50. Have a rejuvenating night’s sleep in one of our 72 overnight rooms at The Inn so you can start all over in the morning!

We couldn’t make great things happen here without you! Our goal for the 50 for 50 Campaign is $50,000. If you would like additional information about our program, services or philanthropic opportunities, call the Development Office at 800.734.5611 ext. 1547. Give online now.

What’s your favorite Shaker Village activity? Plan your next visit at!

Community Sing at the Meeting House

On September 8, 2018, we held a Community Sing in the Meeting House to sing this amazing space back into use after it’s recent preservation work. On a weekly basis, hundreds of Shakers gathered together to sing and dance in this space and we wanted to to relive that feeling of community with our guests.

Today, the Meeting House is open to daily guests and is utilized for music performances, special events and more. It’s one of the most photographed buildings at Shaker Village. Its simplicity and symmetry embody Shaker design, and its presence is awe-inspiring. Plan a visit soon and experience it for yourself!

Rocks that say 1813 and other cool facts

In the changing historic landscape of Pleasant Hill, buildings came and buildings went. It’s impossible to view the photographic and archival evidence without getting the impression that this place used to look a lot different than it does today (an understatement, I know). Personally, I’ve always been impressed with the imposing presence that the 2nd Centre Family Dwelling (built 1812-1815) casts in the historic photos of the village. If you want to learn a little more about this building, I encourage you to visit the exhibit in the Farm Deacon’s Shop (incidentally, this dwelling stood just to the north of this spot).

The 1813 Centre Family Dwelling had a long, productive life at Pleasant Hill that was tragically cut short by a fire in 1932. Here’s how it was described in the March 4, 1932, account from the Harrodsburg Herald:

    A spectacular fire that threatened to wipe out a large portion of historic Shakertown, started Tuesday night about eleven o’clock in one of the oldest and handsomest of the splendid buildings. It was occupied by three families, two of which lost their entire possessions. Several other buildings were threatened, but were saved by the Harrodsburg fire company in charge of Chief K. B. Phillips, assisted by volunteers, who got on the roofs of the threatened buildings and swept off the sparks as they fell. The Pennebaker Home for Girls caught on fire several times, chiefly from dried leaves in the gutters, but the blazes were extinguished before any damage was done.

   The burned building was erected in 1813, according to the date on the stone structure. It was three and a half stories high and contained forty-two rooms, with a large finished basement of several compartments. It was located about 500 feet from Highway 68 which runs through the main part of the Shaker village, and faced West on a driveway. It was of handsome dressed stone with thick walls, the interior being priceless hand-fashioned woodwork made by the skilled artisans of the Shaker colony nearly a century and a quarter ago. The only water available for fighting the fire was from the large Shaker pond approximately 600 yards distant and across the highway from the burning building. The hose taken along with the pumping apparatus was not sufficient to reach the distance and the firemen sent back to Harrodsburg for more hose. The blaze was so far advanced in the stone building when discovered that all energies were concentrated on saving the nearby structures. The stone building was entirely gutted and when the tin roof caved in a veritable storm of spark fell in every direction, igniting even the clothing and hats of some of the spectators.

After the “storm of spark” subsided and the “spectacular” fire was extinguished, I imagine that the scene looked something like this (although I’m not sure when this picture was taken):

If you visit this location today, all you will see are the foundation stones peeking out on the surface, marking the footprint of this once massive building.  It’s all that remains of it – at least, all that remains onsite.  Because in 1937, much of the surviving stone was hauled to Harrodsburg to build a house for relatives of the Bohon family. The house still stands in town today (and is still in use), a subtle reminder that the history of Pleasant Hill is much bigger than the 3000 acres and 34 buildings that we care for today. There are a lot of inter-connections out there that we can’t forget about. Pleasant Hill is an integral part of Mercer County’s history, and vice-versa.

The coolest thing about this house? One of the stones used to build the rear wall was this:

Aaron Genton is the collections manager…