I first heard about the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill near Lexington when American Spirit featured Kentucky in its travel section a few years ago. With the Shakers as the cover story of our May/June issue, I decided it was time to pay a visit to America’s largest restored Shaker community for a firsthand look at a utopian way of life.
The Shakers lived by the saying, “Hands to work, hearts to God.” But as one of Pleasant Hill’s costumed guides remarked, their motto also could have been: “Work smarter, not harder.” Many of the artifacts on display in the living history museum (made up of 34 restored buildings in the middle of 3,000 acres of farmland) were labor-saving devices, which the Shakers did not patent, freely sharing with the world. (Although their claims to be inventors of the clothespin and circular saw are unlikely, their dumbwaiters and flat brooms and kitchen gadgets were models of efficiency.) Even some Shaker barns were built on slopes so that hay could be pitched downward instead of upward. Smart choice if you’ve ever shoveled out a barn!
The goods they sold to the “outside world,” from packaged seeds to classic furniture, were known for their reliability and craftsmanship. However … even though there’s evidence that their formula for house paint lasted more than 100 years, I’m not sure I’d like the idea of pulverized brick mixed with animal blood slathered on my walls.
Pleasant Hill does a great job bringing the Shakers’ principles to vivid life. I was mesmerized by craftspeople demonstrating Shaker techniques, from woodworking to spinning and weaving to broom making. (Tip: always hang your broom so the bristles don’t get bent.) And the village farm, with its heirloom vegetables and historic animal breeds, offered a hands-on look at the importance of agriculture to the Shakers. Actually, the farm might have been my favorite part of the community: I loved that Percheron horses are still used to till the gardens, English sheep are still shorn for their wool and Dominique chickens provide the eggs served at the Inn’s dining room. (Ok, it made me laugh, but I didn’t exactly love that one of the wily goats grabbed and ate half my map.)
Pay the Shaker community a visit if you’re ever up in bluegrass country. And be a pal and bring me back some homemade corn sticks and Shaker lemon pie.