For some peace and quiet with a generous dose of fascinating history, visit Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
This collection of historic buildings in central Kentucky offers a glimpse of an interesting bit of regional history.
The Shakers were a Christian sect founded in England in the 18th century. Formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, they were called Shakers by critics because of their ecstatic behavior during worship services. The group embraced the term.
In 1805, a group of Shakers moved to central Kentucky and established a village they named Pleasant Hill. The name is apt, as the village sits on a ridge with pleasant views down either side. The village is bordered by U.S. 68, the main highway between Lexington and Harrodsburg; and the original road is preserved as a gravel path slicing through the heart of the restored area.
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Along that original turnpike, visitors will find a farm, administration building (now housing the site’s restaurant), the main residential building and worship center.
The first stop for visitors is the original carpenter’s shop, which now houses the village’s welcome center. You can purchase tickets for tours and activities and learn about the site’s history through a variety of exhibits.
Two nearby buildings dominate the village – the Centre Family Dwelling and the Meeting House.
The Shakers were a celibate community. Members lived in what were called spiritual families, with separate quarters for men and women. The sect believed in the equality of the sexes, and this can be seen symbolically in the Centre Family Dwelling. The house is perfectly symmetrical, with rooms on the east and west sides exactly the same.
The multistory limestone structure housed up to 100 members. In contained 14 bedrooms, kitchens, a dining room, cellar for food storage (with a dumbwaiter to move items upstairs), an infirmary and meeting room.
While limestone is whitish in color, the Centre Family Dwelling is officially called gray, because only the Meeting House, the center of religious life, was to be white.
Other family dwellings are located elsewhere in the village. Most are now used as guest rooms for overnight visitors to the village. There also are guest rooms in several other buildings. All are furnished in period style furniture, adding to the experience.
The Meeting House is a marvel of timber-frame building. From the mammoth limestone block foundation to the trusses in the attic, there are no nails or even many pegs. All of the wood beams are notched and fitted. By walking about the attic, visitors can see engineering that has lasted nearly 200 years.
Both the Centre Family Dwelling and Meeting House are scheduled for major restoration in the coming year. So they might not be open for interior tours. In that case, make sure to listen to one of the interpretive staff presentations on the architecture and preservation work of both buildings. These free talks are given twice day and are part of an extensive list of daily activities and talks. Some programs, such as a concert of Shaker music, are presented only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Just east of the Meeting House is the Trustees’ Office. This building, which dates from 1839, now houses the village’s restaurant. Meals emphasize locally grown fruits and vegetables and locally raised meat. For dessert, try the lemon pie, made from an original Shaker recipe. The Shakers believed in economy and efficiency, so the double-crust pie uses whole lemons. The taste is unique and well worth sampling.
Even if you don’t plan to eat in the village, take a moment to step inside the Trustees’ Office and view the twin spiral staircases that rise three stories.
Several buildings throughout the village include static exhibits focusing on various aspects of daily life.
Unlike religious groups that shunned modern conveniences, the Shakers embraced change and at times were on the cutting edge of technology and commerce. For example, Pleasant Hill was the first western Shaker village to have a public water system. Water was pumped by horse-power from a spring to a 19,000-gallon staved tank on the second floor of the water house (built in 1833). From there, the water flowed by gravity to kitchens and wash houses throughout the village.
The Shakers also marketed flat brooms, which were far superior to the homemade round brooms in common use on the frontier. The sect also was the first group to package vegetable seeds in small packets, with planting instructions printed on the packet.
These products and others were sold throughout the region but also from a series of booths set up along the turnpike. This area is now a large grassy area bordered by a plank fence, but it’s easy to visualize a scene when travelers could stop and buy supplies.
About a mile from the village, on the Kentucky River, is the dock for the Dixie Belle riverboat. Rides are offered twice a day. On the weekends, visitors can also take a wagon ridge or evening hayride.
Village population peaked at nearly 500 in the 1820s, but the village remained active until 1910. In 1961, a private nonprofit organization was formed to restore the property. In 1962, James Lowry Cogar, the first curator of Colonial Williamsburg, came back to his native state to become the first president of Shaker Village. He was responsible for the innovative plan for adaptive use of historic buildings and excellence in restoration standards.
The first restored structures were opened to the public in 1968.
That philosophy and practice continue as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill prepares to mark its 50th anniversary of operation. It remains a working window on the past.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
What: Collection of restored buildings offering a glimpse into the life of a 19th century religious community
Where: 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, KY 40330
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Admission: $10 for 13 and older, $5 for 6 to 12, free for under 6. Some activities have additional charges.