The Proud Custodian of Shakertown’s Past

Brandon Wilson, Program Specialist

Among Pleasant Hill’s most iconic residents was Philip West, a man whose habitation in the East Family Wash House helped to preserve its rich architecture for generations to come. He was known by many as “the proud custodian of Shakertown’s past,” a guardian of Pleasant Hill history decades before the site’s national notoriety began.

Philip West at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Philip West and his mother, Nancy West, spent years enslaved by Dr. Gabriel Minter of Jessamine County, Kentucky until the year 1865, when Philip first arrived at Pleasant Hill. While with the Shakers, he worked with his father, a carpenter from Wilmore, Kentucky. Imagine the pride he must have felt in his work (and perhaps, for the first time, his leisure too), finally laboring for his own gain and his own volition, instead of someone else’s. Besides woodworking with his father, Philip assisted the Shaker community in packaging food preserves for sale. He was also a proficient chairmaker, using the skilled application of dried corn shucks to weave seats.

Beyond his talented craftsmanship, Philip West was a man committed to family. And, this fact is crucial, because slavery not only meant forced labor, it meant powerlessness over marriage, family ties, loved ones and community. For much of West’s life, he and anyone he loved could be plucked and sold miles from home, never to be seen again. To see the picture of Philip, close by his wife, Ann, is more than a quaint moment. In the context of Mr. West’s Odyssean life, it is a powerful testament to the importance of family in the face of so many threats to its destruction. Perhaps that is why Mr. West felt he had so much in common with his Shaker neighbors – family, however defined, was something sacred.

Philip and Ann West, together in front of the East Family Wash House.

Today, Philip West’s legacy lives on at Shaker Village. His commitment to the history and preservation of the site can be seen in current restoration projects in the East Family Dwelling and Wash House. His powerful commitment to family can also be seen, in his very own descendant, Sarah, who now works at Pleasant Hill just as he did a century ago.

To learn more, visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring the seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.

Shaker Village