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Shaking with the Shakers

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By Brad Bowman

The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill offers a retreat in time to 19th century living and a scenic landscape to clear one’s head.

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The village has more than 3,000 acres with 34 Shaker buildings, which stand as museum exhibits, overnight lodging for the inn, a restaurant, crafts and gift shops, with barns and corn cribs that are still in use.

The private nonprofit foundation at Shaker Village continues to preserve and protect the village grounds and offers 40 miles of hiking trails with 1,000 acres of restored native prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Sonya Selby, guest experience manager, started at the village as one of the many historical interpreters that give daily tours and demonstrations of 19th century life.

“The Shakers were people just like you and I. They were no different than we are today. They had a desire to do good work and accomplish good things with varying levels of spirituality,” Selby said. “The Shakers were on the cutting edge of technology with farming and in the household. Making a connection from the past to the present, we are not as removed as we sometimes think we are.”

Selby said the Shakers kept an extensive amount of journals that included scientific information about livestock, their crops and the climate. The journals are a portal into their life and history.

“They used language that we don’t normally use today like how someone absconded from the village under the cover of night,” Selby said. “There was also the Swede Stampede where a group of Swedish people were helped with their passage and the deal was they would work off their passage here and stay and contribute to the community. Many hit the ground running and didn’t stay, but some did.”

Aside from the historical interpreters, the grounds are open to self-guiding tours where visitors can look at exhibits like the Centre House where displays show what life was like for a Shaker man or woman. At the peak of its popularity, the village had about 500 residents with more than 250 structures.

“In one of the journals, one of the villagers wrote that when the Centre House was being built it would be used as a school at night for those sisters who needed to be educated on their reading, writing and arithmetic,” Selby said.

The village had five houses for family dwellings: The Centre House for the Centre Family, which housed up to 80 people, and four other houses for the East and West Families.

There were rules in place to control the fraternization of men and women,” Selby said. “They were trying to make this place their heaven on Earth by removing the fleshly desires and wants as much as they could. Just like any place, was everything perfect, no. Did people fall in love and leave the village, yes. Did people come here as husband and wife and one of them leave and one of them stay, yes. “

The different interpreters and staff all have something different to offer on tours.

Morgan Beyer originally came on a dig at a former Centre House site and now works as a historical interpreter.

“We were a group from the University of Kentucky who came out to do a dig at the foundation of one of the original Shaker buildings,” Beyer said. “We were out here for about six weeks during May and June uncovering what is considered the second Centre House. We didn’t find a whole lot. What we did find it was difficult to know if it was Shaker or not. The building had been used after this became Shaker Town, Kentucky, so it was hard to know if the bits of pottery, cups and plates were used by the actual Shakers or not. I was a history major so to be able to share this history with people is pretty awesome.”

Visitors can also learn about Shaker life from their music. Matthew Cessna, a musical interpreter, studies music and does musical performances in the worship house across from the Centre House.

“The Shaker music has a strong religious quality to it,” Cessna said. “The Shakers left behind over 20,000 songs so there is a lot of variety. You get influences ranging from African-American songs to Appalachian and British Isle song traditions. It is probably most akin to the hymn tradition of the southeast and the storytelling tradition of the Appalachian folksong tradition.”

In his performance, Cessna mentions that the village had more than 50 black residents who enjoyed freedom and were treated as equals.

“There is a story of a Shaker who gave a slave who was lent out by his master money to buy his freedom and an African-American Shaker sister who enjoyed a plate full of civil liberties not just as an African-American but as a woman,” Cessna said.

Shaker Village as a destination offers vast history for those wishing to learn more through events or tours on the property. Money spent at the restaurant, gift shop, events and admission helps to preserve the buildings that were restored in the 1960s.

For those wishing just a quiet retreat the inn and 40 miles of hiking trails offer solace from everyday busyness. The village hosts events to enhance guests’ experience and shine light on the Shaker life.

“Sometimes the Shakers get painted as these very pious and rigid people,” Selby said.  “Another Shaker from a different village who was traveling through this community wrote on how he could hear the sisters laughing and singing in their workshop before he could see the workshop.”

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is near the Kentucky River less than 60 miles from Henry County.

Add two more miles to the trip and take U.S. 60 to U.S. 127 for a scenic drive through the countryside as an alternative to the traffic of the interstate.

For more information about Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill visit: www.shakervillageky.org.