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
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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.

Sharing the Archives, One Bite at a Time

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“I visited here in 1993 and remember seeing an interesting clothes press. Where is that now, and can I see it again?”

“These journal excerpts are fascinating! Can we read the whole thing?”

“Do you have any other examples of Pleasant Hill oval boxes I could look at?”

“Can anyone go poke around in your archives, or only researchers?”

“Where’d all the stuff go that used to be in this building?”

Shaker artifacts are housed in protected storage.

As historical interpreters working with the public, my colleagues and I often receive questions about our artifact collections. You may already know that we’ve had to shuffle many of our artifacts due to recent preservation work, including in the Centre Family Dwelling. What you may not know is that our artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in our collections!

So, why don’t we have all of this great Shaker “stuff” out for everyone to see all of the time? It’s not because we don’t love our visitors (we do) or want you to see them (we do). First, space is always at a premium, and a room packed with furniture doesn’t make the best exhibit. Second, and more importantly, many of our artifacts are fragile — for their conservation, we need to limit how often they are handled, exposed to sunlight and taken out of controlled storage.

Large items like furniture are carefully organized and archived.

“How can I see the artifacts if they aren’t on display?” I’m glad you asked! With grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the help of the internet, the team here at Pleasant Hill are developing a means of digital access to our collections. Anyone with an internet connection can search or browse our documents, artifacts and photographs, regardless of who or where they are. This eliminates the risk of damaging any of the objects. Sounds like a win-win, right?

In order for all of the information to be documented someone (…me) has to:

  • Sift through existing digital records with an editorial eye checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.
  • Find, or create, and enter in missing information such as images or dimensions.
  • Start chipping away at creating records for items that have never been digitized.

With approximately 4,700 object records in our database alone, it’s an elephant-sized task! You know what they say about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

From now until the end of the year, this blog series will go behind the scenes of this project, and tell the stories of some of the objects you’ll see in our database. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you along the way!

The Campaign for Shaker Village

Melissa Donahoo, Development Coordinator

Celebrating Success: Phase 1 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

In late 2014, the Board of Trustees launched an ambitious $25 million campaign to raise much needed funds for preservation, education and conservation for our unique cultural treasure, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. To date, the Village has raised $13.8 million and completed over $6.1 million preservation projects, including the iconic 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling, the 1820 Meeting House and the new Welcome Center in the 1815 Carpenters’ Shop! Funding for these projects was provided in part by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the James Graham Brown Foundation and by many private individuals.

As an additional part of The Campaign for Shaker Village, a new donor-restricted endowment has been established, based on a generous challenge grant from an anonymous donor. This $2 million grant was matched by $4 million in contributions raised by the Board of Trustees prior to December 31, 2017. This ambitious effort has resulted in over $6.2 million, substantially increasing Shaker Village’s total endowment and providing greater long-term financial security for Shaker Village.

Continuing Our Investment: Phase 2 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

Projects in progress or completed in 2019 include the 1833 Water House, the 1860 Bath House, the 1821 Ministry’s Workshop and the 1811 Old Stone Shop. It’s exciting to see preservation at work around the Village and know that with each new rooftop installed and window preserved, we are ensuring the site’s future for many generations to come!

The 1817 East Family Dwelling.

In October of this year, we secured a multi-year gift of $750,000 from an anonymous donor toward the preservation of the 1817 East Family Dwelling. If you’ve visited recently, you may have noticed that preservation work has begun as we work to restore the windows in this building. A new rooftop, masonry work and more will be completed over the next few years without interrupting the function of the building. We have $250,000 remaining to raise to complete the fundraising for this project.

There is still much work to do!

We are pursuing several additional major gift opportunities for programming needs, a site-wide master plan, specific restoration projects and the endowment. Please join us in making a tax-deductible gift to support Shaker Village and its mission to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacy of the Kentucky Shakers!

You can make a donation right now or contact the Development Office at 859.735.1545 to find out more.

Water House Preservation…Part 2!

William Updike, Vice President of Natural and Cultural Resources

Many of you may recall we began working to preserve the 1833 Water House, just east of the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling, last summer with a major structural repair to the front of the building. Read more on that here! I am excited to tell you that within the next two weeks we will begin to start work on the second phase of this project to preserve one of the most important buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill!

The south facade of the 1833 Water House was repaired in the summer of 2018.

The Water House contained the water tank the Pleasant Hill Shaker’s used to provide water to the village. Water was pumped uphill, from a spring, to the storage tank where it was distributed throughout the village in a piping system similar to how many of us get water to our homes today! This was one of the first waterworks west of the Allegheny Mountains, and one of the earliest in the nation.

Our work will involve making repairs to, and replacing as necessary, the roof rafters to remove the noticeable sag in the roof. Once that is complete we will make any other necessary structural repairs, and replace approximately ¾ of the siding. Much like a roof, siding is a sacrificial surface, and eventually reaches the end of it serviceable life.

We have already built new window frames and sashes for the upper gable windows, and have those ready to install. We also built a new front door. Most of the windows and the door of this structure were built during prior restorations, and our new versions are made of more resilient wood to provide many years of service in years to come. Once we complete all of the carpentry, we will install a new roof and paint the building! We look forward to reopening the building for guests to enjoy later this fall!

This project was made possible by generous donations from individuals who love Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and help us care for this important site. If you would like to join us in this effort, please click here to donate!

Putting Food By: Preserving the Harvest at Pleasant Hill

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

[1855] Wed. January 3 Today George Curds barn took fire and burnt up, together with all the wheat, corn, oats and hay he had, all the poor man could do was to go and lay down and cry and that is all any of us could do in such a case.” (Journal of James Levi Ballance, April 1, 1854 – March 31, 1860)

The ready availability of fresh food in any season is something that most modern Americans take for granted. Strawberries in January? Of course, let’s head to the grocery! As the quote that opens this essay reveals, such comfort in food choice and food security is something that is relatively new to the human experience. For the Pleasant Hill Shakers, the necessity of preparing for the coming winter was an onerous task that hung over their heads nearly as soon as the yearly calendar turned to spring.

Apple Jelly Label from Pleasant Hill. In 1853 it was noted that Pleasant Hill grew 50 varieties of apples!

As such, food production and preservation was a year-round task for the Shakers. In order to ensure that food was available to community members, particularly during the winter months, food preservation required contributions from the whole community.

While fruit preservation took place throughout the summer months and into the fall, the fall harvest was an important time for “putting food by” for the winter.

When the Shakers preserved foods, they were prolonging their shelf life to ensure they lasted as long as possible. Some food preservation methods, like canning, required the Shakers to transform the fruits and vegetables, while others like cellaring, required certain storage conditions. All of these methods were important in ensuring the Shakers had enough food to last through the winter until the next growing season.

Although it required a great deal of effort, throughout the 19th century the Shakers became renowned for their skill in preserving food, and in many years they made a tidy profit by selling the excess that they did not need. In 1880, the Albany Evening News spoke directly to this fame: “[Shaker] applesauce and preserves are household words, which involuntarily cause the mouth to water and the mind to teem with recollections of surreptitious feeds of jam in childhood’s hungry days.” It still makes the mouth water!

Not only were the Shakers known for the quality of their preserved food, many visitors also commented on the specialty structures such as the Meat Houses, Smoke Houses, Ice Houses, and more, that the Shakers constructed at Pleasant Hill. Food preservation, it turns out, significantly influenced the built environment at Pleasant Hill in unexpected and interesting ways.

Centre Family Smoke House after the time of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, 1940.
Brick smokehouses were rare, and were plagued by salt used in the curing process.

Perhaps most shockingly, some of these specialty buildings became the targets of thieves from within the community! In March of 1885, Shaker brother Henry Daily commented that he “put 2 locks on C.F. Smoke house door A.M. We have to change lock very often on this door as we have some desperate thieves living among us.  They got some keys somehow or other & get in and steal meat….This is the kind of Shakers we have now days.”

Come and join us at Shaker Village this fall, as we uncover more stories of intrigue, tension and conflict involving food at Pleasant Hill! Oh, and did I mention that we are tasting apple butter? You won’t be disappointed!

Putting Food By: Preserving the Harvest is a daily program that begins at 3:30pm every day through November.