The legacy of the Pleasant Hill Shaker community has often been assessed exclusively through their material culture. However, each physical item is inseparable from the people who used these items while alive. During its century of existence as a Shaker community, more than 2,000 people called Pleasant Hill home – each with a unique background, experience, personality, set of quirks, hopes, dreams, desires and reasons for being a part of this endeavor. It’s this uniqueness that makes their accomplishments at Pleasant Hill are so striking! They are a completely un-relatable group of people who were all drawn for some reason to the community. And, they all in some way helped to make history at Pleasant Hill.
The Pleasant Hill Shakers were made up, in part, by the following people:
- Mary Settles was a single woman who arrived with two small children. Later in life, she was described as one whose “personality permeated the entire house,” as she engaged visitors on subjects ranging from Shaker theology to American politics.
- William Pennebaker arrived as an orphan who survived the death of his parents, was brought by extended family members to live with the Shakers and spent the remaining 73 years of his life at Pleasant Hill! He was described as “an upright, truthful man, quiet and peaceable in his demeanor.” Yet he must have also had a big personality that clashed with others, as he was at one time engaged in a long feud that culminated in his assault by other members of the community – and resulted in the accidental wounding of one of his attackers!
- Napoleon Brown served in the Union army during the Civil War, and following the war somehow found his way to Pleasant Hill. Shortly thereafter, he was placed in the local “lunatic asylum.” Whatever his ailment was, he got it together, and by the end of the same year was back and contributing to the community in a meaningful manner.
- Jonah Crutcher was one of multiple African American members with a fascinating story: “Today we purchased Jonas Crutcher, a colored man, who has been a Believer about 19 years, we keeping him hired here to accommodate him for that purpose, while his owners retained him as a slave; and now to prevent them from dragging him away we have purchased him that he may enjoy the privilege of being one of the brethren on equal terms with the rest of us” (4 January 1859).
- John B. Shain, a strict vegetarian, advocated exercise and “free use of water both drinking and bathing.” He lived until the ripe old age of 92.
- Benjamin Dunlavy, a man who wielded a pen as well as anyone, appears to have had quite the dramatic tendency – even when reporting something as straightforward as the weather: “With a mild, pleasant evening, such as we have enjoyed the past week, the thermometer at 50° at dark, the old year was gliding out almost as gentle as the balmy zephyrs of May – When Lo, & Behold! Old Boreas with his northern hordes, made a sudden dash upon the sunny South, completely surprising her principal Chief, (Mercury,) who was so shocked at the humiliating disaster, that his spirits made a sudden plunge into despondency, and continued the descent for about twelve hours, making 60 degrees at one leap, & was found 8 degrees below zero at sunrise this morning…” (1 Jan 1864).
- Henry Daily, a man who might very well have been the village curmudgeon: “The Centre Family…have Andrew Bloomberg a Swede for second Elder & he has a dog following him wherever he goes…This is not according to Shakerism…If we all had a dog we would all starve before spring since we have very little to live on & cannot afford a dog for each member in the Society. The dog is a perfect nuisance anyhow & them that keep them are no better certain.” (20 September 1887)
What brought a single mother, an orphan, a former soldier with mental instability, a slave, a health nut, a drama queen, and a guy who didn’t like dogs together in one place? If there was a reason beyond religious conviction, we will never know for sure. But one thing is for sure about this motley crew: it isn’t exactly the kind of group you would assemble if you needed to save the world. And yet, they created and maintained their own amazing world at Pleasant Hill.
If there’s one lesson I learn from these people, it’s this: sometimes, a very random group of people can make history and a disparate group of everyday people can achieve seemingly impossible results. It happened with the Pleasant Hill Shakers. And, it can happen for those of us practicing history in our organizations today.
Come to the AASLH Annual Meeting to learn more about how the power of possibility has infiltrated the world of history organizations, and how groups of regular people are achieving impossible results!
Come early or stay late to Louisville and spend an extra day visiting Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a place where the impossible did happen, and still happens today!
For more information, visit www.shakervillageky.org