Lil stood with eyes lowered and hands demurely clasped as spectators filed into the Meeting House. When everyone was seated on the simple wooden benches running down either side of the hall, she looked up and began to sing: “Welcome, welcome, one and all.”
One of several interpretive guides at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Lil has made a study of the music of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Clad in a dull blue, ankle-length dress, her hair covered in a net cap, Lil sang hymns that had reverberated through the Meeting House when this was still an active Shaker community. Words became undecipherable tongues as she raised her hands in the air, shaking her widespread palms in jubilation, demonstrating the charismatic trembling that earned members the nickname of “Shakers.”
In the late 18th century, members of this devoted religious sect developed nineteen highly successful communities across the Northeast U.S., Ohio and Kentucky. Believing that Christ had come again on earth in spiritual form, the brothers and sisters withdrew from mainstream society, took a vow of celibacy, and created separate villages where they lived communally, sharing ownership of property and goods. By 1825, Pleasant Hill was a thriving Shaker community with nearly 500 inhabitants. At its zenith the village had more than 260 buildings, including the Centre Family dwelling, which is still the second largest limestone building in Kentucky other than the state capitol.
Today the term Shaker is most commonly associated with the furniture they constructed, admired for its clean lines and functional simplicity. Yet during its height, this village led the State in scientific farming, experimenting with livestock breeding and improving farming implements, while sales of flat brooms, preserves, garden seeds, and herbs made the Shaker name a hallmark of excellence throughout the Midwest and South.
As a celibate community, the members could only increase their ranks through conversion, thus decline was inevitable. Officially closed in 1910, the buildings in the village changed hands numerous times over the ensuing years, with many being destroyed altogether. In 1961 a group of private citizens organized to preserve the remaining Shaker structures and farmland, opening as an outdoor living history museum in 1968. Thirty-four original structures remain, most of which are open to tour, some of which are even available for overnight accommodations.
Every day, guides explain the Shaker principles and lifestyle, while artisans demonstrate everything from authentic Shaker gardening techniques to the art of spinning and weaving wool. Although Shakers no longer exist in Tennessee – in fact there are only three remaining in the entire country – the preservation of this intriguing community ensures that Shakers will be remembered for much more than their simple furniture.
Pleasant Hill is located 26 miles southwest of Lexington, Kentucky. Hours of operation are: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from April 1 – October 31 (admission $15 for ages 13 and above; $5 ages 6-12) and 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from November 1 – March 31 (admission $7 for ages 13 and above; $3 ages 6-12.)