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.
Social distancing. Stay at home orders. No school. No worship. Essential activities only. Take care of each other.
Sound familiar? While this sounds a lot like things that we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, all those things actually refer to the lives of the Pleasant Hill Shakers from December 1850-February 1851. In mid-December, a few of the folks in the Centre Family came down with a sickness, and within a week it was confirmed to be smallpox. On December 18, the East Family Deaconess recorded this:
“There being a contagious disease prevailing at the Centre Family at this time called the varioloid, it was concluded this morning not to take up school any more for the present & discontinued all intercourse between the Families as far as practicable, so as to prevent the spreading any further if possible…and now all business is mainly suspended in that Family except to cook and wash and take care of the sick etc.” (East Family Deaconess Journal, Filson Historical Society Shaker Collection v.4)
While the village leadership moved quickly, they weren’t able to totally contain it – cases later arose in the East and West families. In the following weeks, the Shakers tried to navigate their daily routines while managing this illness. School for the boys and girls were both suspended. Normal routines were disrupted for weeks, and nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly Sunday worship in the Meeting House. This was an important time for the entire community to meet, and yet week after week journal entries on Sunday read “Meeting at home.”
On January 28, good news finally arrived…but with an exception: “Tuesday 8 oclock P.M. We assembled in the meeting room, and the Elders informed us that the varioloid had so far subsided that there but three cases remaining, one in each Family, and they were kept to themselves, so that it was thought to be safe for the Families to resume their usual intercourse and pursuits. (A separation having been kept since about the 18th Ult., to prevent the disease from spreading.) But it was not thought to be prudent to assemble at the meeting house next Sabbath &c.”(FHS Shaker Collection v.7) It would be March 1, almost 3 months in total, until they collectively met at the Meeting House again. From there, life appeared to return to normal.
Our experience with COVID-19 is not the first time that a disease has shaken life at Pleasant Hill. While it isn’t exactly the same (a localized smallpox outbreak vs. a worldwide pandemic), there are similarities in our experiences. So, I’d like to notice a few lessons that the Pleasant Hill Shakers can teach us as we start to transition into a new phase of life at Pleasant Hill.
It’s Okay to Go Slow
As noted above, on January 28, the Ministry felt like it was ok to resume normal activities, except for assembling at the Meeting House. It would be another month until that happened. This makes total sense, considering what we know about Shaker worship – lots of people in close quarters, singing, dancing, shouting, shaking. Participating in this activity would likely be worse than a bunch of modern teenagers spending their spring break together at the beach. Instead, the Ministry chose a course of deliberate, phased reopening, to use terms that we are used to today.
It’s Okay to Modify Your Behavior
“One o’clock, P.M. Meeting at home by reason of affliction, the varioloid still prevailing at the Center family. We had an orderly meeting, attended with considerable life and zeal…We made no donation of clothing for fear of conveying the varioloid or small pox to such as might receive them.” (25 December 1850, FHS.v.7)
Just because they couldn’t meet at the Meeting House, didn’t mean they lost their roles or identities as Shakers. They met at home for 3 months, still worshiping with those that were able. They even suspended the donation to the poor on Christmas, an important yearly practice, because of this. They modified their behavior because the unique circumstances demanded it, and once it was over, they were luckily able to resume their standard routines.
“This morning the Center Family took their bed clothes & wooling clothing to the fulling mill to wash & clear out the small pox and the next day they went on washing the walls of their dwelling house and taking up carpets brushing & cleaning them and every thing else until they had cleared off every thing that was tainted with the pox.” (15 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society Collection)
Don’t Forget About Others
“I went to the East House to see the sick folks and found them bad- indeed Elizabeth was bedfast, Electa’s life was fast running away with a cancer, Triphena was also confined to the room with a swelling on her thigh, John Badget had been confined to his room for some time with a cut on his foot and was now fast able to walk about a little, Samuel was quite weak & his sense much scattered but still went to the shop.” (3 December 1851, Polly Harris Journal)
Polly Harris lived in the West Family. She didn’t have to go to East Family (and she probably shouldn’t have), but I imagine she wanted to check on them. Other times, medications and vaccinations were supplied to those in need. Others had to chip in and help with jobs that couldn’t be done because of sickness. And during some of the home meetings, they would send their love to those who were sick in other families. The point is that they didn’t forget about the others around them who might need assistance.
Remember, There’s a Lot Going On
“In consequence of the small pox The Ministry & the Center Family alone attended the funeral of our Worthy Brother [Abram Wilhite] at 8 o’clock in the morning It being a very pleasant pretty day for the season of the year the Brethren & Sisters all went to the Grave yard that ware able.” (11 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal)
When she visited the East Family, Polly Harris found a lot of sickness that wasn’t smallpox. Then on top of this, there were members of the community dying, some from smallpox, but also from other causes, like Abram Wilhite. Some were unable to attend the funeral for obvious reasons, but according to another journal, some didn’t attend because they were “afraid of the pox.” Add this to the already difficult disruption of daily lives that were normally very structured. I can imagine this being extremely overwhelming to many of the Shakers.
As an extension to the previous point, don’t forget that others around you are living through a lot right now – sickness, death, unemployment, fear. Then add the growing civil and racial unrest in our country to the mix. No matter how you experience this, don’t forget about the others around you processing the exact same things, but perhaps in very different ways. There is a lot going on right now.
“One oclock Meeting to day was held at home…We was called upon in the commencement of the meeting by the elder brother to be mindful to walk thankfully and humbly before God for the great blessing we now enjoy of good health while so many of our worthy brethren and sisters are suffering in the other families from the destestible disease Small pox, bed colds &c.” (12 January 1851, FHS v.6)
When “Normal” Returns – Make it Memorable
“Holy Mother Ann’s Birth – This day was kept in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother’s birth we assembled to the meeting house at the usual hour one, where we met the good ministry and the church at large, there beloved Elder James addressed the assembly thus, “Beloved friends, brethren & sisters, I feel thankful to meet with you again in this most favored and sacred place, after an absence of near three months, and will be well for each one if they have come prepared to commemorate in truth and reality our Mothers birth, mission &c, and do honor to the cause of salvation as made manifest to us, her children through her painful travel and soul sufferings, we therefore combine together to sing dance and give honor, praise and glory to her most sacred and worthy Name…” (1 March 1851, FHS v.6)
“We then went forth in the march & circular dance, being informed at the same time that the guardian angels that attended Jesus Christ and Mother Ann while on earth were present, together with a number of our deceased friends who once lived in Pleasant Hill.” (1 March 1851, FHS v.7)
Mother Ann’s birthday was always a notable day for the Shakers. They sang and danced, and were even “visited” by a host of angels and spirits. While this might have been a pretty normal occurrence for this time period, I believe that the day as a whole had a memorable quality because of the events of the previous three months. If you could talk to the Shakers who were there that day, what would they remember?
I don’t pretend to know exactly what the future holds, but we can be encouraged by the experiences of the Pleasant Hill Shakers 170 years ago. They can give us a lot to think about. Don’t forget that even though they lived communally, separated from the outside world to a degree, they were people just like us trying to navigate all the challenges that this world threw at them. I believe, on some level, we can all sympathize with the sentiment expressed by this writer in February 1851:
“Our meetings from the last date have been orderly and ordinary up to the first of March. All seemed to be eager and anxiously waiting for a cessation of the disease, and a restoration to health, a restoration to free intermingling one with another in sociality and friendship and especially to meet again in the sacred worship of God, there to embrace each other in the sweetest enjoyment of gospel love and affection.” (FHS v.6)
Mrs. Milly Ann Stewart is a remarkable person, who has been a powerful and influential leader for historic preservation in Kentucky for over five decades. Mrs. Stewart was recently selected by the Kentucky Heritage Council for the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Award, Kentucky’s most distinguished celebration of historic preservation excellence.
During her acceptance speech at the award ceremony, Mrs. Stewart spoke passionately about many historic sites and projects she has supported over the years, and one of those projects is the Campaign for Shaker Village . Mrs. Stewart later remarked, “The reason I’m so impressed with Shaker Village is because it’s a major entity of our history. It was so important to the early settlers and the Shakers were so innovative, and their agricultural practices were ahead of their time.”
She added, “Their craftsmanship and furniture were outstanding and their work benefited the entire community. The whole village was remarkable for its time and expresses the way of life they lived which was so different from the fast-pace world today.”
Mrs. Stewart served on the Kentucky Heritage Council under Governor Julian Carroll and Governor John Y. Brown from 1975-83. During Governor Carroll’s administration she chaired the Mansion Restoration Committee, and in that role she raised the money necessary to refurbish the Governor’s Mansion at a time when the legislature chose not to fund the project. She went on to raise money for the restoration of Kentucky’s Old State Capitol as well as the state’s History Center and the Barstow House, next door. In Lexington she was a major supporter of Henry Clay Estate, Ashland, and the John Hunt Morgan House and Frankfort’s Liberty Hall. There are so many other preservation projects she has touched throughout the years that space doesn’t allow us to name them all!
Barbara Hulette, Mrs. Stewart’s longtime friend and fellow preservationist said, “Milly has made such a tremendous impact on historic preservation in Kentucky, and she does it quietly with style and grace. She doesn’t seek recognition for her accomplishments. She does it because she wants to preserve Kentucky’s rich heritage for generations to come.”
Mrs. Stewart was also responsible for getting the entire Stewart Home & School (formerly the historic Kentucky Military Institute) on the National Register of Historic Places. A fore runner of its time as a community and school for individuals with intellectual disabilities, the Stewart Home & School of Frankfort was established in 1893 by John Q. A. Stewart, M.D. and has been continuously operated by the Stewart family for over 125 years. For 58 years the late John P. Stewart II, M. D. led the school along with other members of the family, and dedicated son-in-law Barry Banker. The fifth generation of the Stewart family are very involved today with Mrs. Stewart’s son, John D. Stewart II, M. D., stepping into his father’s shoes and working alongside Barry Banker.
Mrs. Stewart has four children John, Jean Ann, Charles and Cathy. Cathy is a former Board of Trustee at Shaker Village. She also has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Stewart recently said “Preserving this national treasure is so important for future generations. That’s why I feel so strongly about Shaker Village!”
Shaker Village and so many other organizations are grateful for what she has accomplished. She is truly a Kentucky treasure!
William Updike, Vice President of Natural & Cultural Resources
Many writers over the years have commented that windows are the “eyes” of a building. Working on windows in historic buildings is a challenge. Not only are the windows fragile and difficult to replace, make one mistake in the repair and the look and feel of the building can be altered in a negative way. Imagine if we replaced all the windows with a thicker frame and a single large piece of glass! We would never do that, and hopefully you can envision why we wouldn’t.
Shaker Village has hundreds of windows in our historic buildings. We are pleased to share some of our current work on the 1817 East Family Dwelling to make repairs and paint the building’s windows.
Time and weather have taken a toll on the East Family Dwelling’s wooden windows. We have peeling paint along with failing window frames and sashes in many of the openings. Well, no more, We are hard at work to make the necessary repairs to the wooden window components.
In many cases we find that the window frames tilt into the building, creating a situation where water can pool, and seep inside. We are working frame-by-frame making the necessary repairs to stop this and ensure that water drains away from the opening. Where necessary, this is in the form of small wooden patches or “dutchmen” to replace rotten wood. In certain cases we can accomplish this with epoxy, rebuilding the surface of the sill, and sealing out water.
You may notice that some window openings during this project have a piece of plywood covering them. Have no fear, these are temporary! We have removed the sashes (the movable parts that contain the glass) and are assessing these as to whether or not they are historic, original to the building, or are more recent replacements, and if we can repair the sash or replace it. In cases where we have to replace sashes, we have identified the correct profile for the mullions (the wooden framework for the glass) and will replicate these exactly so as not to alter the appearance of the building.
Once the woodwork is complete and the glass reinstalled, everything will get a fresh coat of paint. We will also make repairs to the cornice and doors as we go.
Work on this project will continue throughout the summer and fall, so check in during an upcoming visit to observe our progress!
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill | 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg KY 40330 | shakervillageky.org | 800.734.5611