Restoring Shakertown was journey of passion, luck, money and a lot of work

50 years ago, group set out to preserve shakertown; pluck and luck helped

jpatton1@herald-leader.comNovember 27, 2011 

SHAKERTOWN — "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free."

Even people who know little about the Shakers are probably familiar with the words of Simple Gifts, the opening lines of the religious movement's most famous hymn.

Fifty years ago, an enterprising and determined group of Kentuckians, many in Lexington, set out to save Shakertown, the Mercer County village founded more than 200 years ago by a group of Shakers in search of an earthly utopia. But the restoration was a project that proved to be anything but simple or free.

They started with the idea of saving the unique collection of buildings, with their dual front doors, one for men and another for women, near Harrodsburg. The buildings form the largest collection of Shaker architecture in one setting, and a beautiful one at that.

To accomplish the task they would need to form a non-profit organization, persuade about a dozen different owners to sell them the buildings and farmland, find millions of dollars to pay for the purchases and then restore the village, which had fallen into disrepair after the death of the last Kentucky Shaker in 1923.

Along the way they also would have to move a state highway and virtually r einvent historic preservation.

"I don't think anybody thought it would be easy," said Thomas Parrish, who traced the project's history in his award-winning 2005 book, Restoring Shakertown. Historic preservation as we know it today was still being invented in places like Lexington and Savannah, Ga., to battle post-war urban-renewal efforts, he said.

There was no template to follow. What they were intent on saving wasn't the home of a famous American, like George Washington's Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, both in Virginia, and it wasn't famous for a moment in history, like Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Instead, it was a real place, one that celebrated the everyday, simple lives of people who deliberately removed themselves from "the world" and found a measure of freedom and peace by doing so.

'A moment in time'

"What I personally think is great about Shakertown is it's capturing a moment in time," Parrish said.

For Dixie Huffman, a Mercer County native who has worked at Shaker Village for more than 40 years, the place has a timeless serenity.

"When you come to the village, you get this sense of calmness, peacefulness," Huffman said. "It's like going into another world."

From her earliest days, Huffman remembers the little country village that sat at the top of the hill. Before the restoration, she said, buildings were boarded up; it was so overgrown with trees that they formed a canopy over the road.

For many of the would-be preservationists, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, as it is known now, also had long been a source of fascination, although few knew much about the elegant architecture hidden inside.

"I do remember so vividly driving through Shakertown before the new road was put in," said Joe Graves Jr., whose father, the late Joe Graves Sr., was instrumental in early preservation efforts. "The main road went between those houses, and I remember sitting in the back of the car and he said, 'This place needs to be preserved.' And like most teenagers, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought how in the world? But he did have that vision."

As one of the founders of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, the elder Graves already had discovered there was a deep community interest in saving history. The first year of the trust's existence, it attracted 1,500 dues-paying members, his son said.

Lexington's burgeoning preservationist movement, kick-started by the tearing down of a historic Gratz Park home in 1955, had many members who set their sights on Shakertown.

By the 1960s, the hand-hewn limestone, brick and wood-frame buildings were 100 to 150 years old; their construction was exceptional from the beginning. But several were now in sad shape, and one building had burned down in 1956. The properties had been sold off as the number of Shakers diminished and debts mounted. Their Meeting House became a Baptist church; the Trustees Office was a restaurant and inn. The Carpenter's Shop became a general store and a gas station on U.S. 68.

Still, "the world" never quite lost its fascination with the place.

'Shakertown to be saved'

After a luncheon at Shakertown during a preservation short course hosted by the Blue Grass Trust, interest in the community picked up.

"Mother decided Shakertown was to be saved," said Bob Brewer, whose late mother, Juliette, also was a founder of the Blue Grass Trust. Juliette Brewer was known as a woman with charm, wit, determination and more than a bit of flair. Jim Cogar, who would become the first president of Shakertown, called her "Mrs. P.T. Barnum."

Bob Brewer remembers that his mother had a box seat at the annual Junior League Horse Show in Lexington next to longtime horseman George Gwinn, who just happened to own, with his brother Herbert, 2,200 acres around Shakertown. At the horse show, Juliette Brewer learned that George Gwinn was ready to retire and was interested in selling the land.

With the support of Louisville Courier-Journal owner Barry Bingham, a group had approached major owners of Shakertown properties and talked price. Collectively, they wanted more than $362,000.

'People will come'

In August 1961, a separate non-profit was formed to save Shaker Village, with enthusiastic backing (but no money) from Kentucky Gov. Bert Combs. The state's newspapers hailed the move, too.

Juliette Brewer talked to Combs. "She said, 'I think if we have an open house down there at Shakertown at the Centre Family House, people will come,'" Bob Brewer recalled. "That was how simple the thing was when it started."

They advertised the event in all the Central Kentucky newspapers and as far away as Cincinnati and Knoxville.

They planned to serve lemonade and expected 50 or so people to show up on a Sunday afternoon to tour the buildings that could be opened.

Instead, state troopers came to ask what was blocking traffic. At least 2,000 people came, and 3,000 more showed up the next Sunday for an encore event.

'Wallace's folly'?

Although the Shakertown trustees came up with money to scrape by and to option some properties, they had no luck finding an "angel" to underwrite the entire place, as John D. Rockefeller had done with Colonial Williamsburg.

Trustee Earl D. Wallace, a retired oil executive and Wall Street financier, took up the hunt and became the first chairman and CEO of Shakertown. For two years, Wallace traveled the country and scoured his list of contacts with no success. Even Lexington bankers were uninterested in making loans to the foundation; they referred to the project as "Wallace's folly."

Wallace apparently viewed the exercise as a challenge. He wasn't doing it for love, as he often scoffed at the Shakers' religious beliefs, or money (he was unpaid and never compensated for his travel).

The turning point came when Wallace and Shakertown put together an innovative application for a government loan. Mercer County had just been declared an economic disaster area, and a Kennedy administration program eventually agreed to retool a loan program for urban factories to cover a rural landmark that locals thought would revitalize the regional economy.

In January 1964, the Commerce Department approved a $2 million loan to restore Shakertown and create 289 jobs. The village was expected to draw 150,000 tourists a year by 1970. Although Wallace thought the loan would be enough to restore the majority of the buildings, inflation in the 1970s made everything more expensive, and it covered only eight.

After being approved for the government loan, private money came easier. Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly of the Indianapolis pharmaceutical company became the largest patrons, and there were substantial contributions over the years from others, including Nettie Jones, the widow of oilman W. Alton Jones in Maryland; and the Binghams and the Browns in Louisville.

'A beacon'

The foundation already had recruited another key player: Kentucky native Jim Cogar, who had been the innovative first curator at Colonial Williamsburg, the restored historic district in eastern Virginia. Cogar, who had come to Kentucky in 1957 for the Blue Grass Trust's preservation short course, was already well-acquainted with Shakertown and had turned down at least one offer to restore it. But as things started to fall into place, Cogar's mother became ill in 1962, and he soon was drawn into the efforts by, among others, Brewer and Wallace.

Cogar's reputation gave the project instant national credibility as well as the taste to best present the simple grace of the Shaker legacy.

"Cogar supplied the knowledge, the ambience," Bob Brewer said of the late Shakertown president. He also supplied his eventual replacement by recruiting Jim Thomas, who absorbed Cogar's knowledge and brought it forward, Brewer said.

Thomas arrived in 1964 before any restoration work had been done. His first assignment was to hang an exhibition of Kentucky Impressionist painter Paul Sawyier's works in the unrestored East Family House.

"It showed the possibilities of adaptive use and how Pleasant Hill could be a beacon," Thomas said.

Some of the frame buildings were very fragile, Thomas said. But the stone and brick ones were in surprisingly good condition. The large dwelling houses were still structurally sound, he said.

Many were planned by the remarkable Shaker builder and administrator Micajah Burnett. "I had never seen buildings that were so beautifully planned as the buildings at Pleasant Hill," Thomas said.

"Our challenge was to try to figure out how these buildings were used, what their purpose was and if we could do the same thing," he said.

The 'Shaker aesthetic'

Thomas' first responsibility was to train some of the local carpenters hired for the restoration to make furniture, he said. "There had been big sales in the '20s and '30s, and the furniture was dispersed," he said.

These wonderful original handmade pieces had become family heirlooms that people weren't often willing to part with. So the woodworkers had to re-create everything the Shakers used in daily life: chests, beds, looking glasses, tables, chairs, "all made with the Shaker aesthetic," he said.

"One thing that was very helpful was there were enough buildings and examples so that if a chair rail was missing, it was not conjecture," he said. "We could replicate it from an existing one."

Thomas worked with Gray Seal Paint in Louisville to sample and reproduce the vibrant Shaker palette.

"The Shakers did like color," Thomas said. "You see it in their textiles. ... They had a very lighthearted sensibility."

For floors, they liked chrome yellow, with various shades of blue for trim on whitewashed walls sometimes burnished to look like marble and often stenciled, he said. The Cooper Shop was painted a distinctive ocher; most shops had red trim in differing shades.

'Got to have better food'

Even before Shakertown was restored, tourists were coming.

"People were fascinated about Shaker Village and really wanted to know what happened there and what was going to happen there," Thomas said.

With the restoration begun, the next step was hospitality.

"Mr. Wallace said, 'We've got to have better food,'" Bob Brewer said. Wallace and other trustees, including Bob Jewell and Betty Morris, quickly focused on Elizabeth Cromwell Kremer, a Kentucky native who had risen to fame in food circles.

Raised in Cynthiana, Kremer was known for establishing well-regarded restaurants in Cincinnati, Louisville and New York, where she had been food manager for the Schrafft's chain.

Retired and a widow, Kremer was approached about putting Shakertown on the food map. She originally said no, but at the urging of her daughters she reconsidered and in 1967 came on board.

Brewer said that as Kremer began putting the kitchen together, she came across a copy of the recipe for the already-famous Shaker lemon pie pasted on a wall.

Her daughter, Evalina Settle, said Kremer traced the pie to its Ohio roots and got permission to reprint it for We Make You Kindly Welcome, her first book of Shakertown recipes, or "receipts," as old-timers called them.

Settle said her late mother wanted the food to be as authentic to Shakers as the buildings and furniture, and to that end Kremer researched Shaker eating habits, food availability and seasonal recipes. She hired locals and convinced them to return to using fresh garden produce decades before today's local food movement

"She wanted it to be simple food, pretty much what it was like for them," Settle said.

Shakertown, complete with restaurant and 52 guest rooms furnished with period pieces, opened for visitors on April 15, 1968.

"Soon people began saying, 'Have you been to Shakertown for dinner?'" Bob Brewer said.

Shakertown Roundtable

But even with the influx of busloads of tourists to eat and stay at Shakertown, finances were shaky. Wallace renegotiated extraordinarily favorable terms for repaying the federal loan and began to build an endowment.

Harking back to some of the earlier philosophical discussions about what the preservationists were saving Shakertown for, Wallace created the Shakertown Roundtable in 1977, focusing first on national and then on purely regional issues that urgently needed debate.

Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark, who wrote a history of Shakertown, had conducted a series of colloquia on public affairs from 1972 to '74 that were well-received. The 1985 Roundtable, coming on the heels of Bert Combs' lawsuit over the economic inequality of Kentucky schools, is credited with stirring the state toward the Kentucky Education Reform Act, adopted in 1990, just after Wallace's death.

From 1990 to 2000, the Roundtable continued under the leadership of trustee and journalist Al Smith but has recurred only sporadically since Smith's retirement.

"From the beginning, (Wallace) wanted for Shakertown to be a world-class conference center," Smith said.

The lapsing of the Roundtable is "a great loss," said Parrish, who wrote the history of the restoration. "There were different opinions as time went on about why they're doing this (saving Shakertown). Is it just the buildings or should we tease world peace out of it?"

Part of the problem stems from money. Shaker Village requires enormous and constant upkeep that competes financially with more worldly aims.

'Built for eternity'

Once again, Shaker Village finds itself at a crossroads and must reinvent itself.

"Much of it is the place in which we find ourselves in this country," Thomas said. Tastes in travel, in the family vacation and in the way Americans experience history have changed permanently. The tour buses that once kept the place hopping have almost stopped running.

"Then with the economy changing in 2008, it was the death knell for house museums in New England," Thomas said. "There's been a shaking out of historic sites, and Pleasant Hill has a lot of competition. ... We used to have the best breakfast in Central Kentucky. Now you can go to Bob Evans. You miss the experience, but it's cheap and the food may be as good."

Maynard Crossland, who became the president of Shaker Village this fall, thinks this generation of leadership will rise to the new challenges just as the first did.

Saving Shakertown "was an impossibility," Crossland said. "These were just common folks, doing common things, ... who left extraordinary resources behind."

But Crossland has little doubt their legacy will survive.

These buildings "were built for eternity," he said. "And I think they may make it."

Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.

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