Shaker Retreat

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“Partial list of Articles to be Sold at Shaker Village, near Harrodsburg, Ky., July 12th, 1922, Beginning at 11 o’clock,” reads the poster in a book on my lap.

About 27 beds six children’s beds about 40 cherry chests about 10 chests of drawers a number of chairs a number of tables and candle stands several stoves a number of spinning and flax wheels a number of rugs two corner cupboards several clocks a number of other small articles manufactured and used by the Shakers.

“Shaker Village lies seven miles Northeast of Harrodsburg on the Lexington pike.

“A good lunch can be secured on the grounds.”

I am now seven miles northeast of Harrodsburg on the Lexington pike (now called U.S. 68), and while I have little use for the spinning wheels, I would love to own almost anything else on the list. Like thousands of others, I’m drawn to the simple lines and stunning proportions of Shaker design. Sadly, though, there’s no auction this weekend, and Shaker furniture brings such high prices these days that I wouldn’t be able to afford more than a seed packet in any case.

But the town is still here, now run as a museum. Less than an hour’s drive from the Lexington airport, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill sits on twentyseven hundred acres of farmland—a generous buffer against what the Shakers liked to call the world. Once there, you can tour thirty-three restored buildings and take a steamboat ride past the steep limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River to High Bridge, built in 1877, and back. Then, if you’ve thought ahead and made reservations, you can have dinner and spend the night in one of the historic buildings, in a room furnished with reproduction Shaker antiques.

A walking tour begins at the Centre Family Dwelling, a large stone structure with light-filled rooms for sleeping, eating, and indoor chores. Here chairs hang neatly from pegs on the wall, sheets are stretched tight across beds, and all possibility of clutter vanishes into handsome built-in dressers that stretch up to the ceiling. On the first floor guides instruct visitors in Shaker beliefs, which included celibacy, equality of the sexes, and the Second Coming of Christ.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing were followers of Ann Lee, who emigrated from England in 1774 and eventually founded nineteen communities in the United States, where they earned their nickname from their custom of dancing at meetings to shake off their sins. Their insistence on celibacy makes modern visitors wonder how the group expected to survive and why anyone would have wanted to join. “Whenever people ask that,” said Marcheta Sparrow, the village’s director of public relations, “I always say, ‘You weren’t alive in the 183Os.’” The first believers, she went on, were caught up in the great religious revival that swept the country during the early 180Os. Later converts were often orphans or widowed mothers who brought their young children with them when they joined. For them, the Shakers provided a refuge from the hardships of the outside world.

Next we crossed to the Meeting House, where a woman named Roberta Burns sang Shaker songs and demonstrated their slow, shuffling dance, asking her audience to imagine the sound of her voice and feet multiplied by hundreds of believers. Later we watched brooms being made and visited a carpenter’s shop, where my husband admired a double-tenoned, tabled scarf joint—an ingenious method of joining two heavy beams end to end. By 6:00 P.M. the fall sunlight slanted sharply across the grass, the last few cars pulled out of the parking lot, and those of us who were staying began to get that singular proprietary feeling that comes when you’re someplace extraordinary after-hours.

We checked into a room on the third floor of the East Family Dwelling. How authentic were our accommodations? It seemed to me that Pleasant Hill has found about the right blend of historical flavor and modern comfort. In Shaker days men would have slept on one side of the house, women on the other, but now couples can stay together. Our room had a bare floor with rag rugs and a simple wooden bed. Whatever light we had came from a few candles, and although they were powered by electricity (real ones would have endangered the building), they cast a soft, nineteenth-century glow. We had a brand-new bathroom, a telephone, a television set. But the Shakers had no quarrel with progress; they invented a host of laborsaving devices and were quick to embrace new technology. My husband idly turned on the television. Swept up in religious fervor, I turned it off.