Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on October 22, 2000

Harrodsburg, Ky., is defined by history. As the oldest English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountainsand a one-time haunt of Daniel Booneheritage is central to its identity.

Maybe because of our background, weve always been sensitive to the importance of preservation, says Joetta Wickliffe, president of the local State Bank & Trust Co. and an active community leader.

For that reason, the religious group known as Shakers couldnt have picked a better place to establish a community where their craftsmanship would be appreciated long after their departure.

It was primarily religious fervor that led them to the pastoral Kentucky countryside. In 1805, Shaker missionaries and a few local converts took up residence on a believers farm they called Pleasant Hill. Following stringent guidelines established by church leadership in New England, the new community offered an orderly, contemplative lifestyle to the struggling pioneers. Compared to the hardship and isolation they faced, it was an easy sell.

As their numbers grew, the hard-working community prospered, amassing nearly 5,000 acres of farmland. They built more than 250 stone, wood, and brick structures in which they slept, worked, and worshippedmen on one side, women on the other. They even had one building, slightly fancier than the rest, for receiving visitors from the outside world.

Although Shaker traditions seem restrictive by modern standards, they were quite progressive in many aspects. Unlike other religions of the day, both male and female members of any race were urged to develop their talents; journals reveal that some even received patents for their work. And, at the end of every week, dedicated Shakers could break out of their self-imposed repression and enjoy a morning of uninhibited dancing and singing. (This unique style of worship is how they got their name.)

The Shakers thrived at Pleasant Hill for more than 100 years, but their belief in celibacy, and the lure of the secular world, prevented sustainable growth. By the 1920s, their numbers had dwindled from 500 to 12, and their settlement was divided and sold.

For nearly 40 years, the sacred spaces were used as restaurants, general stores, and gas stations. At one point, vehicles were even driven into one of the larger worship buildings for auto bodywork.

The Great Depression and two world wars distracted the community from such things as preservation, explains Bill Randolph, editor and publisher of the Harrodsburg Herald. There was too much going on in the world that required their resources.

But interested citizens soon turned their attention back to community developmentand the recovery of the treasure in their midst. In 1961, a nonprofit group called Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky Inc., formed to coordinate the daunting task of restoring the third-largest Shaker settlement in the country.

Thank goodness they had the vision to do that, Wickliffe says, noting that 100,000 people pay to visit annually. Our community wouldve suffered a great loss if Shakertown had continued to deteriorate.

James Lowry Cogar, the first curator of Colonial Williamsburg and a native Kentuckian, led the effort. Under his guidance, the group purchased 2,250 acres of the original Shaker farm and developed a plan to provide dining, overnight lodging, and craft sales in the 33 remaining buildings. Visitors would get a unique Shaker experience, and the historic site would generate enough revenue to become self-sustaining.

The restoration was conducted as meticulously as the Shakers themselves were known to be. The smallest details, from paint colors to hardware, have been authenticated. Special breeds of livestock have been imported from Europeconsistent with animals the Shakers raised, such as Leicester Longwool sheep and Durham Shorthorn cattle.

The result is an environment much like the Shakers intended: simple, tranquil, and conducive to reflection.

Its a great place to think, says Harvey Mitchell, manager of neighboring Anderson Circle Farms. We have corporate meetings there, and people from other cities always appreciate the peace and quiet. And the good food.

The Shakers contributed much to our society, including flat brooms, peg rails, rag rugs, knitting styles, wooden clothes pins, washing machines, circular saws, and 24,000 hymns. Something they did not produce, however, was babies.

As a result, they couldnt maintain their numbers. Adopted children often left the order at adulthood, and some members sought their fortunes outside the community. Today, only one functioning Shaker society remains, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which includes seven elderly members and one novice-in-training. They say, however, that theyre actively recruiting.