Kentucky

Shakers thrived in Pleasant Hill for nearly 100 years

The Centre Family House at Shakertown in Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg , Ky., Wednesday, November, 16, 2011. This is the 50th anniversary year of the foundation that saved Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Charles Bertram | Staff
The Centre Family House at Shakertown in Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg , Ky., Wednesday, November, 16, 2011. This is the 50th anniversary year of the foundation that saved Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Charles Bertram | Staff

An offshoot of the Quakers, the Shakers were founded by an Englishwoman named Ann Lee. They established a settlement near Harrodsburg in 1806 on a creek named Shawnee Run. In 1812 they moved up to Pleasant Hill.

To create their ideal of agrarian utopia, the Shakers lived communal but celibate lives devoted to work.

This might seem an unattractive lifestyle today, but in an era when women and children had few economic resources, the Shaker life appealed to many.

Because they were officially celibate, Shakers mostly relied on conversions and taking in homeless children to grow the order.

Families who converted would dissolve the marriage and parental bonds: Husbands and wives lived separately, and children lived in two communal groups raised by other Shaker sisters and brothers.

"For the Shakers who loved the life, there was a certain serenity," said Jim Thomas, a former Shakertown president. "But this kind of communal experience was not for the weak of heart and not for everybody."

Men and women, both in the order and visitors, were watched constantly, but romance and sex proved difficult to eliminate, as evidenced by a poignant love poem written into the plaster beside a third-floor window in the Old Stone Shop. It memorializes "that time when my heart was so full of love overflowing that I spoke not but kissed thee and sent thee away."

If women became pregnant, they would leave Shakertown to give birth, but they and their children could be welcomed back if they wished to return.

Not everyone did; desertions occurred, and children raised in the order sometimes left to pursue a more mainstream life.

By the mid-1800s, the village had grown to about 250 structures and 600 residents, their ranks swelling in lean seasons with what were known as "Winter Shakers."

At its height, the Shakers worked perhaps 5,000 acres; today's Shaker Village has 3,500 acres to provide a rural buffer and protect the village.

For decades, the village was hugely successful. Shakers exported a wide variety of goods including fruit preserves, herbs, cheeses, barrels, shoes and woolen goods, in addition to grain and potatoes.

They came up with the idea of selling seeds in packets and marketed them nationally. And Shakers around the country were well-known for their high-quality brooms.

But the Civil War and modern industrialization doomed the movement, and by 1910, the Pleasant Hill order had dwindled to just a dozen members, who deeded away their remaining 1,800 acres with the agreement that they could remain and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Beautiful Shaker furniture and everyday items were sold off after the last Kentucky Shaker, Sister Mary Settles, died in 1923.

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