Simple Gifts From the Shakers

Simple Gifts From the Shakers

Exploring Shaker culture at the beautifully restored Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.

Shaker Village has this amazing other-time, other-world feel to it as soon as you step onto its car-free pedestrian walkways. The stark simplicity of the place is hard to get used to at first, but after a while at Pleasant Hill, you learn to appreciate how beautiful it really is. In fact, I was lured back to The Village on three separate occasions within a few weeks' time.

The history and amazingly detailed self-guided tours through the campus's many painstakingly-restored buildings is just part of the experience. The buildings blend into the rolling hills so effortlessly, like they always belonged there, making you appreciate the simplicity and foresight in the Shakers' design that makes this possible.


There are no tour guides at Shaker Village, per say, but rather a small army of dedicated storytellers, historians, and teachers willing to answer any questions and give you a personalized glimpse into the life of Kentucky's Shakers - everything from their day to day activities, their music and worship, the foods they grew and prepared, and their roles in major historical events such as the Civil War.

These locals really are a wealth of information, which I think is aided by the fact that they are not actors, but instead students of history.


Though this place is steeped in history - enough to keep adults busy learning and exploring for a full weekend - it's also very family friendly. The Village offers activities to appeal to all ages. The kid inside of me especially enjoyed watching and petting the many animals spread throughout the grounds.


One of my trips to Pleasant Hill included an overnight stay in one of the historical buildings on the campus. Many of the buildings have been converted into hotel rooms, though they are far from your typical hotel room. Except for the attached bathrooms, electricity and satellite TV's, these rooms are relatively unchanged since Shaker times.

I stayed in the West Family's Sister Workshop. I was impressed by the room's furniture and decor, which was very simple and similar to the furniture you would see in one of the exhibits. Luckily, though, if you compare my accommodations (far above) to the Shakers' typical accommodations (directly above), mine were far more roomy and private.


One of the things that most astounded me about the Shakers was how truly innovative and brilliant their hand-made designs were. In the picture (above left) I am looking down the staircase at the many floors below in the Centre Family Dwelling (the campus's largest structure). The staircase was built in such a way to allow an opening for warm air to rise from the floors below. It then could exit out of a small door at the top of the staircase (above right), therefore creating an ahead-of-its-time ventilation system.


The Shakers also used skylights quite a bit to provide plenty of natural lighting in their top floors. Their dwellings were set up in such a way that, if divided down the middle, one side would mirror the other with doors and windows, taking advantage of crosswinds and thus creating yet another ventilation system. Their perfection of architectural elements like the spiral staircase was nearly untouchable in their time.


The Shakers handmade just about everything that they used in their early days, but throughout the years they showed that they also weren't against the use of commercially produced goods if it made their work more efficient. In their eyes work was the best way to worship God, so if modern (horse-powered) appliances and pre-dyed fabrics were helping them get more work done, they were all for it.


Speaking of work, the Shakers were master craftsmen, known for their woodworking and, even to this day, for their handcrafted brooms.


A unique feature of Shaker Village is their riverboat tour along the Kentucky River. After a day of taking in so much history and information, it was nice to sit back and look at the palisades roll by. You also get to check out another historic Kentucky landmark during the voyage, High Bridge. Above, I am working on a bit of a sunburn with my boyfriend. Oops!


Every month - and even every day - there are different events and activities taking place at Pleasant Hill. One of my weekend trips happened during a Civil War weekend. Reenactors flooded the village, much like the real soldiers did during the actual war, and the occasional canon blast gave you a bit of a jolt.


Probably my favorite special activity during October was the Lantern-Lit Spirit Walk. It all started with a campfire and s'mores. As if I wasn't already sold after that, lanterns in hand, we strolled through the village stopping occasionally to "hear from" some of it's past residents. The walk ends at the Shaker cemetery, which was cool (and kind of spooky) to see at dusk.

The Shakers were so ahead of their time, and each weekend that I learned more about them, the more I respected them and their lifestyle. Their strong sense of community, hard work, natural living, and even the importance of song and dance in their lives is something we can all take lessons from.

Pleasant Hill is such an easy drive from Lexington, I'm sure its a place I will continue to visit over and over again (besides all the history, they have great hiking trails!)

They have plenty of upcoming events in time for the holiday season - which I can only imagine is magical to see - so visit to plan your own step back in history.

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