South Union Shaker Village Continues Work to Identify Shaker Graves

Jan 25, 2012

An important restoration effort has made major strides at the South Union Shaker Village in Logan County. Over the past four-and-a-half years, staff identified 425 grave sites at the village, built a new fence around that cemetery, and gave the area a proper memorial marker.

The South Union Shaker Village is the kind of place that looks like it could have led to the creation of words like “bucolic” and “picturesque”. The vast, 500 acre village sits just off US-68 in Logan County, and is dotted with a few, simple buildings that look like they could have built in 1807, when the first Shakers settled there. For nearly five years, South Union Shaker Village Executive Director Tommy Hines and his small staff have been trying to learn all they can about the Shakers who lived and died on village grounds. Hines says at first they were armed with little more than an early 19th century map left by the Shakers that provided a general idea about where the grave sites were located.

“So, with a great amount of research and a grant that allowed us to have archaeological students from the University of Kentucky here—they actually used ground-penetrating radar over most of that plot of land,” says Hines. “They ironically found out that most of what was on the map in 1836 was identical to what existed today.”

It didn’t sit right with Hines and his staff that the hundreds of Shakers buried at South Union had none of even the most simple of trappings. There was no fence around the cemetery, and no marker to explain to visitors that the people who lived on, and cared for, the land for 115 years now rested on those grounds. Hines says the reason for the confusion can be traced back to the 1920’s, when a Louisville businessman named Oscar Bond purchased the land making up the South Union Shaker Village. According to Hines, Bond was less than interested in historic preservation.

“He’s the one who took all the gravestones up and ground up all the limestone markers and used that lime on the farm,” says Hines. “And then there were a series of iron grave markers that had been put up during the 1870s—what they called “lollipop” markers, with a very distinctive shape that you find in several Shaker villages. It appeared that the new owner of the property plowed these under, because we’ve found buckets and buckets of pieces of those since that time.”

Some of the found remnants of those cast-iron “lollipop” grave markers Hines mentioned can now be found in a few display cases at the village. To see them, you need to take the steps up to the third floor of the building known as the “Centre House.” The grave markers are now little more than fragments, like random pieces of a larger jig-saw puzzle. But by comparing the parts of names found on the marker pieces to records kept by the Shakers, Hines and his staff have been able to identify some of the Shakers laid to rest at the village.

Hines pointed to one of the fragments behind a glass case. “This one, for instance, of Margaret Pickens, who was born in 1814 and died here in 1859,” he said. “It’s the largest single piece that we have. But there’s not any whole grave markers left.”

It’s a quarter-mile walk from the Centre House out to the cemetery where at least 425 Shakers are buried. Visitors can now walk down a narrow, gravel road to see the culmination of so much work by the South Union staff. Here, in the middle of this beautiful plot of land, sits a wooden fence that surrounds a single, plain marker honoring those who lived and died here.

Tommy Hines hopes South Union can at some point secure funding for further archaeological investigations on the village grounds. It could be that there are other grave sites at South Union that remain unknown and neglected. Until then, Hines and his staff will continue to use the documents, manuscripts, and diaries they have on hand to uncover the history of the Shakers who made this place home.