Shakers of Pleasant Hill

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Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg, KY.

By Regina Cole

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Elsa Wachter walks into the East Family Wash House, one of three that survive in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Built in 1825, the wood-frame building once sheltered Shaker sisters who laundered with the aid of horse-powered agitators. The large copper boilers set into brick hearths are still there, but the interior has something decidedly modern: air conditioning.

“This is where we hold many of our courses and workshops,” our guide explains. “We know that people want to be comfortable.”

The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is constantly adapting to changing expectations. Years ago, basket weaving was big, but today’s most popular course is beekeeping.

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“The Shakers kept bees behind the Centre Family Dwelling, so that’s perfect synergy,” Wachter says. Also popular, and in the spirit of a people who believed in sustainable farming far ahead of their time, are green-cleaning courses, mushroom-growing workshops, canning and herbal health lessons, and sheep shearing. But what would the Shakers of Pleasant Hill make of stand-up paddleboard lessons, outdoor yoga classes, or moonlit owl prowls? Would they approve of the annual wild game feast accompanied by tastings of local Kentucky bourbon whiskey?

The Shakers “made spirits for sale and for their own use,” Wachter says. “And they grew tobacco. Mother Ann [the Shakers’ founder] smoked a pipe.”

The number and variety of activities in this 3,000-acre, 34-building museum, 25 miles southwest of Lexington, would probably warm the hearts of its 19th-century citizens.

Founded in 1805, when three missionaries walked a thousand miles from the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, N.Y., Pleasant Hill had 491 members by 1823. Land holdings swelled to more than 4,500 acres. They installed a municipal water system, developed seed propagation and livestock breeding technologies, and, in a 105-year period, erected 260 structures, many built of the local limestone that also creates miles of Celtic-influenced rock fence walls outlining the Shaker lands.

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Hard work and quality brought the Kentucky Shakers early success. By 1816, they were producing enough surplus brooms (75,000 of them in 1869!), cooper wares, preserves, and packaged seeds to ship them to New Orleans via the Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers.

“They knew their goods would bring five times what they would in Kentucky,” points out Jonathan Todd, a program specialist. “The trip was long and arduous, but they found it worthwhile.” Such industry is a basis for today’s lively scene: stern-wheeler riverboat rides, trail runs billed as “unPleasant Hill,” lodging choices, and a seed-to-table restaurant called The Trustees’ Table that draws clientele to fried chicken, corn pudding, and Shaker lemon pie—and to a superb selection of small-batch bourbons.

A popular activity is the Pumpkin Smash, held just after Halloween, when guests are encouraged to have a good time repurposing countless pumpkins into bird food and compost. “It’s fun,” Todd says. “How often do you get to drop something big and heavy that breaks into lots of pieces?”

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg, KY: shakervillageky.org