I remember the first time I visited Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. I was probably 10 or 11 years old and my grandmother and mom took my sister and me on our way to visit family in Danville. There were farm animals, really cool old houses, and lots of incredible music. I had always looked back on that trip fondly.
Fast forward a little over a decade and my grandmother and I visited Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill again. It was even more special than I had remembered! The property sits on a stunning piece of land and you can almost feel the history resonating in the air around you. The site is full of life, even though no one has lived there in quite some time. Visiting is truly an experience as you learn about the people who lived, worked, and worshiped in this piece of heaven on earth.
Special thanks to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill for hosting my grandmother and I and to Maggie McAdams for showing us around!
A Brief History of Shaker Village
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was the third largest Shaker settlement in the USA between 1805 and 1910. It covers over 3,000 acres with over 30 of the original buildings still standing and several excavated archaeological sites. Additionally, the property has a working farm and stables. SO cool! So now that we’ve covered the property a bit, we need to talk about the people who lived there.
The United Society of Believer’s in Christ’s Second Appearing is the official name of the group, but they’re more commonly known as Shakers. Why Shakers? Because they would often shake and act erratically during worship. They believed that shaking was one way to remove sin and become pure. The religion started in England, then spread to the northeast US before eventually finding its way to Pleasant Hill in Kentucky.
Religion, Millennial Laws, and other Rules
The Shakers believed that they existed on a spiritual plane that was above earth but below heaven. Because of this, they separated themselves from the earthly world and tried to remain as pure as possible, as sin was a slippery slope back down to the earthly plane. They remained pure (aka no sex), lived in a communal setting, confessed their sins to their elders, and, as mentioned, lived separately from the World. Shakers also believed in equality, allowing both men and women to serve as elders in the community. In fact, they believed in duality – that God possessed both male and female characteristics. This belief is reflected in the symmetry of Shaker buildings and the layout of communities.
So how did they know when they were sinning? Well, they had this strict code of ethics known as the Millennial Laws that kept them separated from the World. These rules taught them how to worship, how to conduct temporal business, and how to interact with other Believers (what the Shakers called themselves). One rule required individuals to obtain permission from elders to travel, which was rare since it involved going into the World. Another Millennial Law required that men and women (called Brothers and Sisters) had their own spaces, using separate doors, staircases, and sides of the home. At times, the Millennial Laws got oddly specific; one example of this is the requirement that cucumbers be salted and peppered before consumption. Shakers followed these laws, no matter how obscure, and would confess to their elders when they broke a rule.
Shakers lived in family homes, but their version of family is different from how we typically think of familial units. Shakers had to remain pure, which meant no procreation was allowed. Families were chosen units of Brothers and Sisters who lived in the same house. Each house had at least two Elders and two Eldresses which other members of the house would confess their sins to; men of the house would confess to the Elders while women confessed to the Eldresses.
The houses were split down the middle, with men typically occupying the eastern side and women the western. This wasn’t always the case, though! The Eastern Family Dwelling at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is reversed, likely because it existed before wide distribution of the Millennial Laws. The outbuildings to the family home reflected these sides, with buildings men would frequent to the east and women’s to the west – these would be things like bath houses and workshops. The location allowed for easy access from the home to the outbuildings and back.
Becoming a Shaker
People who came to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill would start in the family dwellings farthest from the Meeting House, which was essentially the center of village life. They would live in these places and practice Shaker culture on kind of a trial basis before deciding if they’d be staying permanently. Living at Shaker Village had its perks, like guaranteed food and education to all – even those who hadn’t permanently committed to the religion. Some folks took advantage of this, joining the village just long enough to get back on their feet before moving on.
Families who came to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill would have to separate once joining the community permanently. Married couples would go from being husband and wife to celibate Brother and Sister. If they had children, these kids would be moved to a different dwelling once they joined the community and would become their parent’s Brother or Sister, rather than their child. Shakers often took children in, giving them the option to stay at the village or leave Shaker life when they turned 21.
Those who joined the community would have to legally sign over all of their property, giving up all worldly possessions to fully become a Shaker. This sometimes meant that people would bring enslaved people with them, signing their “property” over to the Shakers. The Shakers felt that all people were equal, regardless of race, so having people as property wasn’t something they were okay with. In these cases, the Shakers would buy the enslaved person’s freedom. Sometimes, these newly freed men and women would choose to join the Shakers while others would go on their way. Many freed people found new life at the Shaker communities.
Song and dance were a major part of Shaker religion, yet they didn’t call the space where these things happened a place of worship. Shakers worshiped all day every day, so they named the space where they sang and danced the Meeting House. The Meeting House was painted white and unadorned aside from rows of painted hooks on the interior walls. The highest ranking Elders and Eldresses would live upstairs and have their own worship spaces on the floor above everyone else. Like other Shaker spaces, women occupied one side of the space and men the other.
Shaker music started out being pretty unorganized; there was lots of shouting, dancing, and (of course) shaking. Over time, communities started composing their own songs, learning songs from other communities, and even creating choreography for songs. Songs were learned through call and response until they became familiar. Shakers rarely wrote music down; when it was, it was done through letter annotation instead of a traditional staff.
Shaker music reflected Shaker life. Everything flowed – lacking traditional restraints like time (4/4, 3/4, etc). Shakers would all sing the same line of music, never harmonizing. Songwriting was considered to be a gift from God. Many beautiful pieces of Shaker music were actually written at Pleasant Hill!
While Shakers believed men and women were equal, the jobs that each had followed typical gender stereotypes. Sisters typically worked in the kitchens, spinning, weaving, cleaning, washing clothes, and making things like jams and preserves. Brothers traditionally worked the farms and in crafts and trades. When it was especially busy, though, both Brothers and Sisters would do whatever jobs were needed most.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was along a major road connecting Lexington and Perryville, both important cities during the Civil War. This meant that quite a bit of foot traffic from the outside world. The Shakers would sell their goods like jams, preserves, and other food goods to those passing through. They also opened up a lodging space for visitors passing through. These rooms were originally separated by gender, but that may have changed over time to accommodate visitors from the outside world. The Trustees’ Office was in charge of accounting and money management for the entire community. This means the Trustee was the Shaker who probably had the most contact with the outside world.
Visiting Pleasant Hill
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill sits among tons of gorgeous bluegrass in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Wandering the property was a perfect day trip for my grandmother and me, but you can always spend more time exploring by staying overnight in the Inn (starts at $110 per night). Daily admission to Shaker Village is $14, with discounts for children and seniors. The admission is well worth it, as it includes access to all of the incredible daily activities on the property! We especially enjoyed the 2 PM Shaker Music presentation.
You’re liable to get pretty hungry while wandering the property. Luckily, Shaker Village has a fabulous restaurant on site called the Trustees’ Table. Trustees’ Table offers farm-to-table food and oh my gosh y’all it is so good! I had the Bacon and Benedictine Sandwich on wheat and ate every single bite. Cole slaw and cornbread come with every meal. Reservations for meals are recommended. You’ll also probably want to snag a souvenir, which you can buy in a variety of shops around the property. My grandmother purchased a book on the Shakers here 20-ish years ago that she still talks about now!
Y’all know I’m a sucker for a good historical destination and wow does Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill deliver! I learned so much about history of the site and the people who lived there in this single afternoon (all thanks to Maggie, our expert tour guide!). My experience at Shaker Village gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the people who lived, worked, worshiped, and thrived at the property. I will definitely be visiting again in the future.