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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  • Michael Whitfield Stevenson - January 20, 2018 reply

    I believe you have found my great great grandfather’s pants! I ran across your post yesterday while searching google for information about him and was extremely grateful to see the information you have posted. We have a book from William C Stevenson (Whitfield’s brother) that has a note in it that states “Papa was living with the Shakers at South Union near Bowling Green when he had this book, and other members would write in his book songs that they composed”. The book has birth, death and marriage dates from our family tree, but it also has numerous songs/poems.

    Now that we have found your post, I want to make a trip to see where he lived and try to find out what additional information you might have on him. I have several pictures of him from after his time there that I could share if you are interested. We could also share a scanned copy of the William C Stevenson book.

    Such a cool find and great post! Thanks for the effort in researching it and letting people know about it!

    Michael Whitfield Stevenson
    Fort Branch, IN

  • Glendyne Wergland - February 5, 2019 reply

    Another tidbit: In April 1879, Whitfield Stevenson appeared at New Lebanon, requesting a privilege there, having left South Union two weeks earlier. The Ministry sent him to the Second Family to await news of him from South Union. Source: Giles Avery, Ministry Journal, New York Public Library Shaker collection ms. 5.

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