directors update


NEW EXHIBIT: Dictates of Conscience and Feelings of Humanity: People of Color at South Union 1807-1860

[pictured above: signatures from some of the South Union covenant signers from 1830, which includes signatures of black and white members]


Opening on Sunday, February 18

In celebration of Black History Month, South Union Shaker Village announces the opening of a new exhibit that examines the experience of early 19th century African Americans at South Union. 

Opening reception and exhibit are free to the public

Time:  2:00pm – 4:00pm with remarks at 2:30pm


Sponsored by Walmart Foundation, Logan County Tourism

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Shaker VillageNEW EXHIBIT: Dictates of Conscience and Feelings of Humanity: People of Color at South Union 1807-1860


[pictured above: the 1847 East House, the largest of the village’s dwelling houses and the view from the Community’s mill dam and looking east toward the 1812 Bridge]


Thanks to the generosity of Cathy Mathias, SUSV now has two more historic images in the library collection. Taken ca. 1910 by Corinne McCreary Barr, the great aunt of the donor, these South Union photographs were discovered in an album primarily made up of Bowling Green, Kentucky images. When Ms. Mathias began posting examples from the album on Facebook last spring, it was immediately apparent that these photos were made at South Union.

At right is the 1847 East House, the largest of the village’s dwelling houses. Visible on the front steps is a group that includes people in the photographer’s party and Bro. John Perryman (1840-1916), who lived in South Union’s East House. The East House was home to seventy Shakers when it was completed in 1850, but by the turn of the century less than a dozen members lived there.

The second photograph made at South Union by Mrs. Barr is even more of a rarity. Taken from the Community’s mill dam and looking east toward the 1812 Bridge, Mrs. Barr not only captured her guests but an unknown village building in the background. The two story frame structure could possibly be the 1867 Miller’s House, built to house a hired miller and his family. This is the first known photograph that includes structures at South Union’s mill site other than the dam itself.

We are most appreciative of the donation of both historic photographs by Cathy Mathias.

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[pictured above: The 1854 Wash House]


We are pleased to announce that our friends and neighbors, the Fathers of Mercy, have extended to us an invitation to purchase the 1854 Wash House.

Incorporating the Wash House into our village setting will enable us to further advance the SUSV mission of serving the public near and far through historic preservation and cultural heritage education. For the first time, we will have the opportunity to create dedicated areas for school programs, meeting rooms for adult education, additional gallery and exhibit space, and research areas for students and interns. The acquisition of this significant building will also enable us to highlight women’s history in a structure that was wholly dedicated to their efforts throughout the 19th century.

Phase 1 of the Wash House Campaign is to acquire the building and approximately two acres of land.

A very equitable purchase price of $300,000.00 must be raised to accomplish our goal; over $53,000.00 has been committed to date. Phase 2 will eventually involve the processes of restoration and adaptive re-use. The Wash House is in an excellent state of preservation and has been stewarded well by the Fathers of Mercy.

Please join us in bringing this significant building back into the South Union Shaker Village by contributing to the Wash House Campaign. Our campaign ends February 2017.



The 1854 Wash House or Sisters Shop was constructed at a time of great prosperity and optimism for the South Union Shakers. As the result, this pre-Civil War building was one of the most ambitious construction projects in the Shaker world at the time.  Providing over 10,000 square feet of work space for the women of the Centre Family, the building’s four floors were principally used for the purposes of washing, drying and ironing of textiles. It also housed a music room and retiring rooms for those Sisters assigned to work there.

Construction began on May 2, 1853 and after three years of labor the Wash House was ready for occupancy in the fall of 1856. Thousands of pounds of limestone, countless lengths of timber, and over a half million hand-made bricks were used in building this most auspicious of Shaker workshops. When complete, a journal keeper noted that “better brick or better walls are not to be found in the Green River Territory.”

Between 1807 and 1922, the Shakers at South Union built more than 250 structures within the confines of their village. Beginning with humble log cabins in the early days, the Shakers created a village of structures, primarily of brick, that projected an air of permanence and success. Great brick dwelling houses, mills, barns and workshops dominated the landscape, with subsidiary buildings like dairies, smokehouses, school houses, laundries, carriage houses, outhouses and sheds built to support them.

When the South Union Shaker Village was closed in 1922 the Wash House was converted into apartments for families working for Oscar Bond, the property’s new owner. In 1949 the Wash House was once again adapted, this time for use as a Catholic school for boys. The current owners, the Fathers of Mercy, have used the Wash House for the purpose of retreats for many years.

Of the ten historic buildings that remain at South Union, the Wash House will be the ninth to be owned, preserved, and interpreted by the South Union Shaker Village.

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[pictured above: One of four “kodaks” made that day in October 1929. The subjects are unidentified although one may be Miss Nora O’Connell, Regent.]

During the early part of the 19th century the South Union Shaker Village drew visitors from all  parts of the country, either to attend public worship services on Sundays or to spend the night and dine at the village’s Trustees Office.

After the Civil War and into the early 20th century the number of guests only increased, initiated by the construction of South Union Station at the railroad crossing and by a growing interest in the Shakers as history. Thanks to a recent donation of a 1929 newspaper article and accompanying photographs we have discovered that there was even interest in visiting the former village only a few years after its dissolution in 1922. Many thanks to Patricia Cauley Foster for sharing the documents.

According to the article, on October 8, 1929 fourteen members of the Russellville Chapter, N.S.D.A.R. held its meeting at “historic old Shakertown.” The group made the trip in four automobiles on what the writer called the “fine Federal highway, No. 68” and then added that the “lovely Kentucky landscape, which bathed in the soft radiance of an absolutely perfect October afternoon, lent charm to the occasion.” “No relics remain,” the writer continued, “save the old brick houses and some lovely trees of various Species. Looking at the clean-cut, classic lines of the buildings, straight and true, even to this day, one is impelled to believe that a people who expressed their personality in such types of architecture must have been of a pure and lofty character.”

The program for the day was a reading from Charles Edson Robinson’s “The Shakers,” [published in 1893], the excerpts from which were provided by the Extension Department of the University of Kentucky. This was followed by the reading of a letter sent to the chapter by Mrs. Alice Hines Walcutt of the Kentucky State Library. The article noted that Mrs. Walcutt’s letter contained “personal reminiscences of the Shakers who, in her childhood, visited the home of her father, Judge Thomas Hines, of Bowling Green . . . attorney for the Shakers.”

The writer ended the article by mentioning that a “delicious picnic” was served, then penned closing remarks in sentimental language characteristic of the time: “If, indeed, the gentle spirit of the departed brethren viewed the scene from the “Farther Shore,” they perchance smiled happily remembering the October afternoons during their earth-life long years ago, when like picnic groups gathered on their hospitable grounds to wile away the sunny hours on an autumn day.”

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Betsy Smith was born October 5, 1813 and came to South Union with her father and five siblings in 1823. Initially Betsy was assigned to live in the East Family, but by 1827 was listed as a member of the Centre Family. As a young girl, Betsy witnessed the construction of the massive new Centre House, the foundation of which nearly complete when her family arrived. She also took part in the final stages of work on the building in 1834, recorded as being one of two women and one man who painted the shutters, “verdigris green.”

Betsy’s youth is characterized by hard work and growing responsibility. At 23 she was assigned the role of caretaker for the young girls, taking up quarters on the 4th floor of the new Centre House. She continued in that role for nearly a decade.

In 1844 Betsy Smith was asked to assist lead Eldress Sarah Rice in her duties, to “stand with her in care.” She accompanied the Ministry on a trip to Union Village, Ohio in July of 1846, her first recorded journey away from South Union. Betsy apparently proved both faithful and able, as she was appointed lead Eldress of South Union on September 30, 1850.

Journal references during Eldress Betsy Smith’s tenure record milestones like her trip to Mt. Lebanon in 1854, as well as advantages afforded by her position in the Society.  However, Betsy also enjoyed picnics and outings, was not adverse to manual labor like painting and cleaning, and enjoyed the everyday work of making silk kerchiefs as gifts for “our Eastern friends” and participating in bonnet-making bees. Elder Harvey Eads marveled at Betsy’s work ethic in June of 1891 when he penned, “Remarkable—Eldress Betsy Smith finished washing the walls and ceiling of my room in the Ministerial little brick building & she nearing her 78th year!”  Eads was 84 at the time.

From 1868 until 1872, the Kentucky Shaker villages were joined into a singular bishopric. During that time Eldress Betsy Smith and Elder Harvey Eads shared their duties with James Rankin and Paulina Bryant of Pleasant Hill. Once the combined government was dissolved, Eldress Betsy again became the sole female leader at South Union, remaining in that position until her death on February 27, 1897, at the age of 84.

[pictured at left]

A “presentation box,” probably made for Eldress Betsy Smith during her journey to the eastern Shaker villages in 1854. The box was sold at auction when South Union closed in 1922 and is today in the museum collection.

[pictured at left]

Eldress Betsy Smith (left) and Eldress Nancy Moore, seated side by side in a group photograph at South Union, ca. 1885. Nancy Moore served as Eldress Betsy’s assistant from 1850-1864, and again from 1873until Moore’s death in December of 1889.

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On Friday, June 29, 1883, the South Union Shakers were visited by Elizabeth Lyle Saxon.

Elder Harvey Eades recorded that visit in Record D, simply:

Visitor.  Mrs. E. L. Saxon, a lecturer on Women’s rights

—a bright & sprightly & intelligent person.

Eades, who at age three had come to South Union in 1807 with his parents, was raised in a culture that demonstrated equality of the sexes. Male and female leaders governed Shaker villages on both a spiritual and a temporal basis. His complimentary journal entry speaks to that acceptance at a time when women’s rights was still in its infancy and by no means widely accepted. Susan B. Anthony’s failed right-to-vote amendment had been proposed just five years earlier.

Elizabeth Lyle Saxon, born in Greenville, Tennessee in 1832, was known as a gifted speaker, a prolific author, and a proponent of social reform. She spoke to large audiences across the nation and even accompanied Susan B. Anthony on a speaking tour through New England to raise awareness. Saxon died in Memphis in 1915, five years before the ratification of the 19th amendment.

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Every day is an adventure at South Union. You never know what new piece of information might surface or who may appear with an object related to the village’s past. Recently while searching the Centre House attic with a flashlight, docent Barrett Rogers discovered what looked like a piece of cloth in a deep hole about five feet below the attic floor. (The Shakers installed low ceilings over their closets, thereby creating “dead air space” between them and the floor above.)

Thanks to his extensive knowledge of clothing history, operations manager Kaelin Vernon determined that Barrett had discovered the upper portion of a pair of “small fall” trousers, so called because of the narrow, buttoned flap at the front of the pants. Dating from as early as the 1830s, photographic evidence from our archive indicates that men were wearing this style of trousers at South Union as late as the 1880s. Shaker fashion was usually quite a bit behind “worldly” trends.

To whom did they belong? The 14-inch waist measurement indicates that the pants had been worn by a youth. Cross-stitched initials “W. S.” discovered inside the waistband provided another clue and prompted an investigation into South Union’s name index. Thanks to research by docent Cheryl Odenthal, we discovered that although there were over thirty men in the village with those initials, only one was a boy.

Twelve-year-old Whitfield Stevenson came to South Union with his parents and siblings in late 1865.  Once he reached the age of 16, his life in the community was characterized by a consistent pattern of leaving the Shakers and being re-admitted.  He still, however, managed to be assigned to the care of the boys in the Centre Family, to reach the level of assistant to the East Family elder, and was even trusted to go on seed-peddling trips. Finally, in October of 1881, Whitfield Stevenson left Shakers for good. One other interesting note . . . he worked in the Centre Family tailor’s shop.

Thanks to Barrett, Kaelin and Cheryl for this group effort!

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