In the first decade after the arrival of Shaker missionaries in Mercer County, before the Pleasant Hill community had built many of the iconic structures that make up the village today, new converts lived on farmsteads scattered around what would eventually become the village center. Many of these homes and outbuildings had not been built by the Shakers, but were put to use to house the rapidly growing community as the Shakers bought land from their neighbors. Early journals make reference to many of these farmsteads, including “the Denny Farm on the hill West of the Grist mill pond, the Varner place about a mile North of the village, and the Brickey place about a half mile or more beyond that” (Church Record Book A, HHS, pg. 38).
One such property was a parcel of land the Shakers bought from William Hoard in 1807, just two years after Shaker missionaries arrived in Mercer County. The property included a frame house which had been built by a previous occupant, which became home for the next ten years to several groups of new converts, including some of Pleasant Hill’s most prominent early families – the Bantas, the Runyons, the Bryants, and converts like John Shain, who later became the village doctor.
A New Location
Over time, the Shakers at Pleasant Hill established two purpose-built Gathering Orders, the North Lot and West Lot, to house new members of the faith while they learned about Shaker lifestyle and religion. The scattered farmsteads that had characterized early village life were simultaneously being phased out. At this time, the Shakers chose to move the frame house from the Hoard property and rebuild the structure as the North Lot Family Dwelling.
On December 16, 1816, Shakers recorded this move in their journals: “Today we began to pull down and move away the old fraim house where Samuel Banta collected a Family in 1807, we intend establishing a gathering family or family of young believers, the family is to be 1 mile North E of the Center Family it will be known by the name of North Lot” (Origins & Progress of the Society, 123).
Over the next year, the Shakers rebuilt the frame house at its new location, adding a cellar and kitchen. The first residents moved to North Lot on November 25th, 1817. This building served as the primary dwelling house for the family until December of 1832, when a larger brick dwelling (lost to a fire in 1946) was completed, after which point it was used as a workshop.
Gathering Orders at Pleasant Hill
Shaker Gathering Orders hosted diverse and shifting populations of potential converts as needy families, European immigrants, spiritual seekers, free black Americans, and countless others arrived on the Shakers’ doorstep. Records note frequent arrivals and departures: members leaving the faith, novitiates transferring to other spiritual families, run-away children, expulsions and readmittances, births, deaths, and other dramas. Some residents of the North Lot Dwelling stayed for months, weeks, or years while never formally joining the community, while for others their time at North Lot was merely the first step toward a life lived in the Shaker community.
The North Lot Dwelling
Today, the frame dwelling is the only building remaining from the North Lot Gathering Order, 206 years after it was moved to its present location. Because the frame house was in existence before the Shakers began constructing some of their first structures on the site, the building likely contains some of the oldest materials still on the site today.
The building has been closed to the public since the 2000s, but is slated for restoration to begin this year. As preservation of the building begins and progresses, we will continue to research and share the story of this significant structure, while preparing it to be used again someday very soon.
Who was Sister Mary, and why are we trying to find her?
A born storyteller, Sister Mary Settles was by all accounts well read, well written, and loved to talk. She had a knack for effective, entertaining, and engaging communication.
“One of a few brilliant conversationalists now living. She will not only talk for publication but she does it so entertainingly and so accurately, that your only trouble lies in being able to keep up with the facts and dates, for which she has an alarming memory.” – Ella Hutchinson Ellwanger, 1919
Sister Mary arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1859 as a single mother of two young children. She claimed to be a widow, but records indicate that her husband, Frank Settles was still living at the time and married another woman in the early 1860s. No matter the circumstance surrounding her arrival, she found a refuge at Pleasant Hill and a place to call home for the final 64 years of her life.
Pleasant Hill’s Last Shaker
Sister Mary took on many roles in the community, notably as a leader and an educator, but one title often overshadows the rest, she was the very last Pleasant Hill Shaker. As the 19th century came to a close, the population of Pleasant Hill was dwindling. The Shakers decided to close the covenant in 1910, meaning they would no longer accept new members. With only twelve Shakers left, including Sister Mary, it was challenging to maintain buildings and grounds, so they deeded their property to a local businessman in exchange for his care in the final years of their lives. With this agreement, the remaining Shakers ensured that they would receive the care and support that they needed. With the buildings in private hands, more hotels and restaurants began to open, and more visitors started to pass through.
A Local Celebrity
Automobile tourism in the 1910s and 1920s meant that people were looking for countryside attractions, and this opened a new world of activity at Pleasant Hill. This coupled with a natural curiosity felt toward the Shaker sect, as communities were waning throughout the U.S. during this time.
Because of this increased visitation, Sister Mary became a local celebrity and tourist attraction. With the passing of Brother William Pennebaker in 1922, her status as the last Pleasant Hill Shaker only intensified the public’s fascination with her and the community. Luckily for Sister Mary and the visitors alike, she was always ready for a good conversation.
At a time when the community and the religion were fading around her, and the world was closing in, Sister Mary decided to spend her time helping curious people of the world understand her way of life. She welcomed questions on the Shaker faith and kept up with the daily newspapers so that she could voice her opinion on all manner of topics. She eagerly contributed to discussions on women’s suffrage and when asked if she voted in the 1920 election, she claimed, “Of course, isn’t the equality of women part of our religion?” – The Courier Journal Sun, November 21, 1920. She lent her voice where she could, and she used her celebrity platform as a tool to educate and instruct, as any teacher would.
Sister Mary, Remembered
Sister Mary passed away on March 29, 1923, so on the centennial anniversary of her death, we ask, how should Sister Mary be remembered? By who she was, by where she lived, by what she did, or by how she made people feel?
At Shaker Village, we believe that studying the history of the Shakers, of Pleasant Hill, and of individuals like Sister Mary gives us perspective on our own beliefs, roles, and identities. Which begs the question: How will you be remembered?
Join us in exploring Sister Mary’s life at Pleasant Hill in our upcoming exhibit, Searching for Sister Mary located on the second floor of Center Family Dwelling.
2022 has been an incredible year at Shaker Village. There is so much to celebrate and none of it would have been possible without your support as a guest, a passholder, or a donor.
Major Milestone Achieved
Five years ago, William Updike joined the Shaker Village staff as the Vice President of Natural & Cultural Resources. His goal was to secure each of the 34 historic Shaker structures on the site. The first step was to replace aging (and failing) roofs. William says, “A dry building starts at the top!” Realizing this ambitious vision required significant resources and funding, and it happened.
When you take a stroll down the historic turnpike and throughout the Village you will notice new roofs have been installed on nearly every building over the past five years. Six roofs were replaced just this year. This is a quite an achievement!
Water poses the biggest threat in historic preservation. When a roof reaches the end of its useful life, it starts to let water in which can damage the building’s structure. Preventing leaks and deflecting water away from the building helps to preserve these original Shaker structures for future generations. And that is precisely our mission!
Our team of craftsmen have also been hard at work this year on windows in the Old Stone Shop and completing the full preservation of the 1817 East Family Dwelling. With help from the grounds crew, the Village has truly never looked better!
Growing a Farm, and our “Farmily”
The Farm at Shaker Village is one of the most popular spots on the property for our guests. Can you guess why? It’s the animals! The Farm and the Garden are cared for by four staff members, and their successes in 2022 are amazing! Check out some of their accomplishments this year:
Completed the 3rd year of solar grazing at LG&E, with our sheep, controlling vegetation across 32 acres of solar panels.
Increased our flock population and now have almost 200 breeding ewes!
Expanded our cattle grazing into a 60-acre sections of native grasses.
Added 3 new registered Shorthorn Heifers to our herd, 2 calves and 1 Texas Longhorn steer.
Built 2 large sections of woven wire fence in our pastures
Redesigned the garden area to have additional walkways for guests.
Built a High Tunnel to extend the growing season and completed its first year of production.
Finished our 2nd full year of CSA garden shares across two, 10-week periods totaling 11 shares per season
Taught dozens of summer campers and hundreds of guests about honey bees and draft animals on our farm.
Donated hundreds of pounds of food to those in need.
Engaging Our Guests
Every day at Shaker Village there is a schedule of daily programs and tours for our guests to enjoy. Our Program Team takes great care and preparation in putting these programs together. They have a lot of fun interacting with our visitors. It is the most rewarding part of our work. Continually enhancing the guest experience is our top priority.
This year we launched the much-anticipated Shaker Village App. This FREE app places hundreds of historic images and other rarely seen content right at your fingertips. It is a great way for you to explore the Village and learn the stories of individual Shakers. Through the App, we hope you will gain a deeper understanding of the Pleasant Hill Shakers and their legacy.
The Program Team and the Curator of Collections are also working on the development, fabrication and installation of two exhibits that will open in 2023. The first, Searching for Sister Mary, will open in March 2023. It will celebrate Sister Mary Settles who was the last Shaker to live at Pleasant Hill. The second exhibit, The Believers: Shaker Theology and Worship, will be installed on the second floor of the 1820 Meeting House. It will open in fall 2023.
Volunteers Make Improvements to The Preserve
Since the unofficial beginning of The Preserve, we have been constantly working to improve the habitat for all the wild things that call this area home. We gauge our progress through surveys of plants, trees, birds, small mammals and insects. This year a quick plant inventory revealed approximately 130 different plant species in The Preserve. And over the years we have observed 108 different species of birds.
As a guest, you can make your own observations in The Preserve by hiking or riding on our multi-use trails. Our trails are maintained by a team of two staff members and a growing number of dedicated volunteers who meet every third Saturday of the month (March through October). Our volunteers worked throughout the past year to improve the Heritage Trail by removing overgrown honeysuckle. This work opened up the trail and hikers should be treated to a beautiful wildflower display next spring!
We also encourage you to spend some time at the Bird Blind, which was updated this past summer. It’s a great place to see some of the area’s most abundant birds and insects. The Bird Blind is located at the center trailhead and is accessible.
We Make You Kindly Welcome
The Pleasant Hill Shakers were known for their hospitality and we carry that legacy forward today. Whether you are visiting for the day, staying overnight or spending a holiday here, we look forward to seeing you!
At The Inn this year, we renovated the bathrooms in four of our guest rooms. These updated bathrooms now feature walk-in showers and more spacious bathrooms. These upgrades were made possible by generous donor support and are part of our ongoing efforts to improve accessibility across the site.
At The Trustees’ Table, we welcomed over 62,000 diners to our table. The fried chicken, Shaker Lemon Pie, and tomato celery soup are our guests’ tried and true favorites. If you’re looking for something a little bit different, check out our Fresh Food Adventure Series. Chef Amber Hokams is able to show off her skills and the best of the Shaker Village Farm during these events. This past year we hosted six of these culinary adventures – and we invite you to join us in January 2023 for the Bourbon Dinner!
With Gratitude…to our Guests, Passholders and Donors
As the year winds down, we are so humbled by the support you’ve shown Shaker Village in a year that has been challenging for all of us. The best part about Shaker Village is that it is nestled in this beautiful rolling hills of the bluegrass. When you visit, it’s because Shaker Village is your destination and you have made an effort to get here to enjoy the peace and tranquility.
In a year when the market has been unstable and inflation has caused rising gas prices, food costs and more, we know your charitable dollars may be limited. Yet we are celebrating all the things that you helped make possible in 2022. We cannot say thank you enough.
Pleasant Hill is a magical place. When the Shakers settled here in 1805, they had no way of knowing that this site would remain two centuries later. Thank you for making that happen, and for generously supporting Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark. We are so excited for 2023 and all the possibilities it will bring.
Imagine yourself standing on the turnpike here at Shaker Village. Close your eyes for a moment.
Can you feel the soft, rustling breeze through the trees? The sun shining warm on your face? Each step you take is accompanied by the crunch of gravel on the path. In the distance the ducks are quacking, the donkey brays. There’s a group of people up ahead on a tour listening intently to the guide. They are nodding and smiling.
How do you feel in the moment?
This Place Matters
When our nonprofit organization formed in the 1960s, the original board members and the public worked tirelessly to restore the Village. It was a not an easy undertaking. They persevered because they felt the same way you feel when you visit Pleasant Hill: this place is special.
How is it special? It’s hard to articulate an answer to that question.
It’s educational. It’s entertainment. It’s fun. It’s an escape.
It’s a sense of peace. A feeling of lightness. A connection to nature and to beauty.
It’s hope in the midst of a chaotic world.
Finding Relevance Today
The Shakers built their environment to reflect their view of Heaven on Earth. Interestingly, their view of Heaven on Earth was adapted over time – both proactively and reactively. One notable example was the shift in how the Village was oriented. The community was initially laid out north to south. Within the first 20 years of establishing the Village, the orientation shifted to run east to west as the turnpike remains today. While there were likely multiple factors in this decision, the New Madrid earthquake in 1811 damaged the original meeting house. The need to construct a new Meeting House may have been the impetus for this change.
It’s lessons like this that the Pleasant Hill Shakers left us to examine. Their ability to adapt over time and their resilience is an important example that we can find relevance in as we navigate our changing world.
Celebrating National Arts and Humanities Month
Today more than ever, we all need someplace where we can take refuge. A place where we can rest. Where we can reflect. Where we can consider steps we can each individually take to help adapt our communities to be more inclusive, equitable, cohesive and proactive.
This year we join the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to celebrate the 35th anniversary of National Arts and Humanities Awareness Month.
“Three and a half decades after its official recognition, National Arts and Humanities Month takes on new relevance to American life today. Music inspires and uplifts us, poems and stories spark our imagination, and museums teach us about the world and ourselves. The arts and humanities have the power to unite us, to heal us, to sustain us, to help us better understand each other, and to guide us through challenging times.” – joint statement by IMLS, NEA and NEH.
Shaker Village is a place where everyday we think about the human experience and study history, philosophy, religion, community development and more. Sixty years ago, the leaders of our nonprofit could not have guessed just how important Shaker Village would be today, but today it’s certain that Pleasant Hill will remain special for generations to come.
Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing
This is the third part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.
Last month we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keeps in mind when developing any new exhibit:
Tell a Meaningful Story
Connect with Different Audiences
If you need to revisit how we craft our exhibit’s “story” and integrate it into the site’s larger interpretive plan, you can catch up here!
Today I’d like to spend some time on “connecting with different audiences.” Talk about a BROAD topic, right?!
A Diverse Audience
Each year Shaker Village has nearly 100,000 visitors to its historic property. These guests come from every imaginable background. Some are elementary students on field trips. Some are international travelers. Many come for their love of history, while some are dragged here because of a family member’s love of history!
Some of our guests will have trouble navigating the steps and historic sidewalks on our property, and some of them are unable to read the signage we hang up, or hear the voices of our staff.
With the universal impact of COVID-19 still being very real, many of our guests will be hesitant to join a group of strangers on a tour, or approach an Historic Interpreter with a question.
Shaker Village’s guests represent a broad cross-section of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. And, every single one of our guests will come to our exhibit with a different perspective. To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.“
Just the Facts
So, how do we account for all of these different perspectives when trying to fulfill our mission to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers?
We start by sticking to the story we know. It’s important for museums like Shaker Village to share facts. This isn’t always easy. Often history is muddy and mysterious. Our team of scholars work hard to check and double-check their sources. We guard against jumping to conclusions, and select the words we use very carefully so they are not easily misinterpreted. It is tempting in this “editorial age” to lead a narrative in the direction you’d like it to go. Aside from this being unethical, it also defeats the purpose of studying our history. How do we learn from it, if we don’t look at it for what it is?
By sticking to the facts we allow ALL of our guests to trust the content they are being introduced to, and this trust provides the foundation for the connections we want to make.
People Learn in Different Ways
We’ve all seen it before. Someone may be a great student in class, but struggle with experiential projects. Another person may be able to grasp complex concepts quickly, but find difficulty staying engaged for a long period of time. Many people love watching historic documentaries, but were bored to sleep in their history classes.
When we develop a new experience at Shaker Village, we are committed to meeting people where theyare, not where we want them to be.
To accomplish this, we layer in several different approaches when developing a new exhibit.
Visuals, including: images, graphics, maps, videos and other multimedia
Audio components that are both ambient and interpretive
Text written without jargon, and kept as succinct as possible
Tactile elements that allow guests to get hands-on
Personal Stories that can make the content more relatable
Programs, tours and workshops connected to the exhibit to add the personal touch and expertise of an Historic Interpreter
Not every visitor will engage with every method we use. That’s not even our intent. Our intent is to have at least one method that is engaging for every visitor.
A Spark of Inspiration
“Interpretation is revelation based upon information.” – Freeman Tildan
So, what exactly is the point of learning about the industries and economy of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill? Well, here’s the secret. It’s not actually about the Shakers. It’s about you.
Throughout Local Economies, Global Impacts we will place questions, prompts and activities that allow visitors to question how the topic at-hand is relatable in their own life. For instance – we have relatively few examples of Shaker clothing, due to the fact that older clothes were often cut up and used to make rugs or other items. What do you do with your old clothes when you are done wearing them?
This is an “inquiry-based” method. Causing the visitor to consider a question and discover their own response. There is no correct answer. Only your answer. Pair with an interactive that allows you to see how others have responded to the same question (this is called user-generated content) and now we’re on to something!
Every exhibit and program we produce at Shaker Village contains a TON of information. Our goal is to move from information to inspiration. Guests might not remember everything they learned, but they will certainly remember how they felt.
Next Month: Learn how Local Economies, Global Impacts will use “universal” concepts to create a story that is relevant to a modern audience.