Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: New Shakertown chief envisions historical site's future

Maynard Crossland became president and CEO of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill last month. His plans for the historic site include finding more compelling ways to tell the Shaker story.
Maynard Crossland became president and CEO of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill last month. His plans for the historic site include finding more compelling ways to tell the Shaker story.

SHAKERTOWN — The Shakers were known for their crafts, architecture, music and dancing — not to mention their celibacy, which helps explain why they are history.

But Maynard Crossland hopes to employ some of the Shakers' other famous traits — ingenuity and entrepreneurship — to improve the fortunes of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

"We have a great story to tell, a great resource that needs to be protected," said Crossland, who recently took over as president of the non-profit corporation that owns and manages the 19th-century Shaker Village in Mercer County and nearly 3,000 acres surrounding it.

Like most historic sites, Shaker Village is suffering from changes in tourism and the economy. The organization has trimmed staff and programming, and dipped into its $9 million endowment to fund expenses, which include maintaining 33 historic buildings and 22 miles of dry-stone fences.

"We need to embrace some change here," said Crossland, 56, former director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where he managed about 60 state historic sites and oversaw creation of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

"It's obvious to me that the profits we make at the restaurant, the inn, the craft store or even ticket sales to the museum are not going to be enough," he said.

Shaker Village needs to more aggressively seek donations and grants, he said. But it also must innovate to raise more cash, as the Shakers did more than a century ago with their farming and seed business.

"People don't realize how inventive the Shakers were and how diligent they were at their entrepreneurship," Crossland said. "Those parts of the story are as relevant today as they were then. It's just being able to figure out the best way to tell that story and to market it to a wider audience."

Visitors now take self- guided walking tours among the Shakers' buildings, picking up pieces of their history from written materials while watching costumed men and women make Shaker crafts. The story needs to be more cohesive, compelling and interactive, Crossland said.

"For people my age, (the current way) may work, but for 10-year-olds, it's not the way they learn," he said. "They've really got to be able to touch it, feel it, smell it — not just see and hear it."

More than just a history lesson, Shaker Village should be an "experience" that meets modern visitors' needs for education and recreation, Crossland said.

On his to-do list: More healthy menu choices at the restaurant, in addition to the classic Kentucky staples. More variety of merchandise in the craft shop, including more lower-priced items and children's souvenirs. More flexible admission charges to attract more visitors.

Crossland wants more people to use the property's natural areas. There are trails for hiking and horseback riding, plus a boat tour on the Kentucky River. He also would like to have concessions where visitors could rent a horse, bike, kayak or canoe. He hopes to bring in more bird watchers and bird hunters (the property's first quail hunts were this fall).

He wants to use the property's gardens and farmland more to promote sustainable agriculture and local food. And he plans to look at an idea that has been discussed for years: building a conference center outside the historic village to attract groups and supplement accommodations at the inn.

Crossland hopes to create more regional partnerships, such as those it now has with the Woodford Hounds, a fox-hunting group, and the Dry Stone Conservancy, a masonry preservation group. For example, he said, historic preservation students could learn restoration techniques by working on Shaker Village's buildings.

"We really need to open this site up and have it embraced by people in the Lexington, Danville and Harrodsburg communities as a resource," he said. "They are our best ambassadors."

Shaker Village is planning special Christmas activities to attract locals and improve staff teamwork. On Dec. 3, Shaker Village Illuminated will include candlelight tours, children's crafts and storytelling for special carload admission prices.

"Our challenge here is to figure out 'what is the experience' and then present that in the most efficient, customer-friendly way we possibly can," Crossland said. "This staff has the brain power to figure it out. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's going to happen."

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