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Simpler times at Shaker Village
Shaker your plate and stomp your feet at this historic site

Vivian Yeast spins yarn in one of the village buildings./ Carolyn Thornton photo
By Carolyn Thornton
Published: May/Jun 2001

Wearing handmade leather shoes and tiny wire-rimmed glasses, the 19th-century gentleman shut the Meeting House door behind him and began to sing “I Will Bow and Be Simple.” A hush descended over the squirming tourists seated on long plank benches in the starkly furnished room. In earlier times, the crowd would have been separated by gender, men seated on the east side, women on the west, with visitors–also separated by gender–sitting along the north and south walls.

Just as suddenly as the quiet song had begun, his voice vaulted into a rousing, foot-stomping hymn that echoed and vibrated the all-wood chamber. “The Shakers used no instruments,” he said. “They didn't think one could improve on God's given voice. They wrote 20,000 hymns, so I hope you have lots of time.”

Delight in simple things

Time is all one needs to experience the 19th-century charms and curiosities at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, located 25 miles southwest of Lexington, Ky. Here every aspect of this living history museum invites modern travelers to slow down and savor the simpler life of those who lived here until 1910. In addition to changing seasonal and daily activities, special events June 2 and 3 will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the village's restoration.

When Kentucky statehood was in its infancy in 1805, three missionaries who preached of Christ's second coming as a woman settled near the Kentucky River. Within a year, they had 100 converts, the only means of growth for this society that advocated a communal, yet celibate lifestyle. They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, but their whirling, spirit-filled dance worship gave them the name Shaker. Men and women of the community lived, dined, worked and slept in the same buildings, but wide hallways always separated them. The men kept to the east side, women on the west, even when entering or exiting buildings. This segregation explains the dual doors on many of the 33 original buildings at this National Historic Landmark.

Cause to celebrate

Men and women communicated only on official occasions or one day a week at the worship service, which contained little preaching. When called upon, they did what the spirit directed, including dancing–the only time they could cross the centerline. Even then, no touching of the opposite sex was allowed. The all-wood 1820 Meeting House echoed so thunderously from their dance worship that they could often be heard three miles away. Now, as then, the ringing of a bell invites all to celebrate the music of the Shakers four times a day in the Meeting House, as well as during summer workshops.

At Pleasant Hill, the soul of the Shakers embraces visitors during formal or self-guided day tours past pastures marked by neatly stacked stone walls. Building materials, including limestone from the Kentucky River, have survived the test of time. Lantern-lit guided walks (Wednesday–Saturday from June through August) enhance the spirit of ages past. Encounters with legendary characters can put visitors soundly in their place–somewhere in the 19th century.

Inventiveness of the Shakers

The industrious Shakers believed idle hands invited trouble. Their day began at 4:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. in winter) and ended at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. in winter). They never talked while eating in order to save time, and they made just about everything they needed, from shoes to boxes and the boats to ship products to market.

Village craftspeople re-create daily life by making hand-tied brooms with turned handles, hand-dipped candles, woven goods, barrels, and the signature oval boxes. The oval design made a more efficient use of wood and was a stronger product than standard rectangular boxes.

Workshops in April through October (limited events are in winter) instruct visitors in Shaker skills, such as basket making, the use of herbs, oval box making and driving draft horses. Visitors also can purchase Shaker furniture and crafts from two village stores.

For the Shakers, form followed function, thus their creations emphasized symmetry, balance and simple, clean lines without ornamentation. In the village, barns were painted red, workshops were ocher, all beds were painted green and only the Meeting House was whitewashed. This talented group invented the flat broom, circular saw, clothespins, apple corer and other devices.

Shaker your plate

Meals served daily in the Trustees’ Office Inn allow one to “Shaker your plate.” Shaker lemon pie, which uses the entire lemon, and pickled watermelon rinds are tantalizing traditions. One recipe reads, “In past days, Shaker sisters generously offered their guests simple meals served on white dishes at well-scrubbed wooden tables.” That tradition continues today.

Pleasant Hill is the only Shaker site in the country that offers overnight lodging in original buildings (with modern conveniences added). Accommodations feature Shaker-style furnishings with handcrafted beds, tables and chairs. Some rooms have space-saving trundle beds.

Segregation of the sexes is most evident in the largest building at the village, the 40-room Centre Family Dwelling. Retiring rooms resembled dormitories with single beds in rows. Transoms over the retiring room doors allowed good air circulation, one of the Shaker rules of good health. The size of the dining hall required the Shakers to eat in shifts. The two men and two women who served in the ministry used a small, separate dining room. The kitchen was located in the cellar, along with food storage rooms.

At the East Family Dwelling, where young adults lived, a video and Shaker Life Exhibit explain Shaker ways. Historical and contemporary photos chronicle the decline of the community and restoration of this historic site.

For another adventure, cruise the Kentucky River on the Dixie Belle. Follow hiking and horseback riding trails skirting the village and Shawnee Run Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River.

As dusk approached, two women wearing white bonnets and aprons over ankle-length dresses stepped outside of a stone building. Instead of purses, they carried baskets. One bent to speak to a calico cat named Mischief. Together, they crossed the lane beneath trees whose leaves whispered in the wind. Lamplight threw its yellow arc onto orderly board fences, making shadows dance in a timeless ritual.

“This is a living village,” said Jim Thomas, chief executive officer. “You can immerse yourself in the site, can have a special feeling about it, and we hope be refreshed.”

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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