Kentucky’s Shaker communities and the people who lived in them were a diverse, multi-faceted group. But not many people know much about them, says Jacob Alan Glover, Program Manager at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.
“The Shakers were known for a couple of major things,” says Glover. “One, a lot of people know that they were a celibate group. They did not live as husband as wife. They’re also known for extremely well made goods, so craft products such as brooms, but also especially furniture, things like chairs and desks and tables.
“But one of the wonderful things about being here is that we get to go so far past that,” Glover continues. “We get to see a much more complex and nuanced history. We get to find out about people who chose to leave here and live as husband and wife in the outside world. The Shaker story gets much more complex and interesting than it ever could be from a surface-level view that they were a group of celibate chair makers.”
Thanks to places like Shaker Village and the continuing exploration of Shaker culture and history, some people have found a personal connection to the Shakers.
Kitty Durham is the Music Interpreter and Head Gardener at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Two centuries ago, her ancestors resided there, although she didn’t know it when she visited the site as a child. It was much later, during her years living in New York as a working musician, that she learned of the connection.
“I did some research on my genealogy and found that they were Shakers here in this wonderful place that I had visited as a child,” Durham says. When she moved back home to Mercer County, she was drawn to the village. “I thought, it would be really neat to work over there at Shaker Village, and lo and behold, they were looking for a singer, and so I found my way here. Once I was here on site, I was able to use our archives to actually get to know my family.”
Although the Shakers were celibate, newcomers to the community often brought children with them. Sometimes young Shakers would decide to leave, start a family in the outside world, but would eventually choose to come back home. That was the case with some of Durham’s ancestors.
“One of the members of the family that stuck out most as I continued to see her name come up in journals was one who served as a nurse, seamstress, eldress of the Center Family Home as well as the last spiritual leader of this community,” says Durham. “Her name as well was Kitty.”
There were other connections that Durham discovered that she shared with this rediscovered relative beyond the shared first name.
“I found out that our birthdays are just five days apart – and 161 years,” says Durham. “I found a wonderful picture of her standing outside what at one time was her office, and 130 years later is mine. And she, like myself, was a musician.”
Thanks to preserved documents, Durham found songs that the Shaker Kitty had written generations ago.
“I was able to actually sing her songs in the meeting house,” says Durham. “It was such an honor to be able to keep her music alive and to sing those notes as she wrote them, and to have them reverberate through the meeting house once again.”
Keeping the Shaker story alive is an important part of understanding the full history of Kentucky.
“[The Shakers were] focused on ideas of equity in gender and racial terms,” says Glover. “They tried to achieve something that was better than just the individualness of their own being. They wanted to make this village heaven on earth. There’s something noble in that quest of using a lot of different skillsets and diversity of people to want to be better.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2515 which originally aired on February 22, 2020. Watch the full episode.