Shaker Retreat

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Around eight o’clock we went to dinner in the building known as the Trustees’ Office, where a pair of spiral staircases ascends three stories. They were designed by Micajah Burnett to conserve space while allowing men and women to remain separate even when descending the stairs. Dining, we had been told, was family-style, which to me suggested a limited menu, bright lighting, and forced cheeriness in the company of strangers. Instead we ate by candlelight at our own table, choosing from a selection of Kentucky and Shaker specialties, including a tart lemon pie made with the whole lemon. (The Pleasant Hill Shakers used to travel to New Orleans by boat to sell their wares, returning on foot with cash and lemons, a haul too precious to waste.)

After dinner we went back to the East Family Dwelling and crept upstairs, reluctant to disturb the quiet. The common rooms, where I had seen guests gathered earlier in the evening, were empty now, their chairs casually grouped for conversations since ended. Those chairs struck me as the rightful inhabitants of the place, brethren and sisters not quite ready to turn in.

The next morning I was up and dressed at about six; I wanted very much to see the village by first light. Other guests were out walking too. Wondering if Pleasant Hill worked the same magic on everyone, I found myself eager to talk to them. The early risers were from Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee, and some of them were here for their third visit. We found an urn of coffee waiting for us outside the dining room. Breakfast was whatever you wanted from a buffet, after which a waitress passed a basket of tiny pumpkin muffins. I may have had eleven.

Marcheta Sparrow had mentioned that the Shaker who kept the journal for the East Family was an unusually good writer, and before I left I asked to see it. Written by Benjamin Dunlavy, the journal covered the years from 1856 to 1870 and was beautiful to look at, with great swooping calligraphic capitals and rarely a crossed-out word. He concentrates his observations on weather and rainfall, but he also records village life during the Civil War, when the pacifist Shakers fed Union and Confederate troops alike. On October 11, 1862, he writes, “Such a day as this was never witnessed on Pleasant Hill before, and God grant that it never may again.” He describes hearing the “roar of artillery” announcing that the “work of death and destruction was going on within 8 or 10 miles of this sacred spot.” The Shakers set up a table outside the Trustees’ Office for a train of Confederate wagons en route to Lexington. “We have fed more than a thousand persons today,” he writes. “And yet they beg food and clothing, and almost everything used for the comforts of life. They offer to purchase everything they call for, but we have but little for them except provisions, and we have uniformly declined any compensation for these.”

I found just one reference to Shaker furniture in the journal. The entry for October 27, 1864, reads: “We introduced Chairs instead of benches in our dining room.” But I enjoyed his entries on days when a believer decided to leave the village; absconded is the word he uses. Sometimes he manages to withhold judgment, but often he can’t resist adding a phrase like “Good riddance” or “A poor stick!” or, the day a group of men and women left together, “A Budgett of hypocrisy!” Many East Family runaways later returned and were readmitted, but the journal accurately records a decline in membership as the century wore on. About five hundred believers lived and worked at Pleasant Hill during the 182Os and 183Os. After the war the number steadily dwindled. Pleasant Hill closed its doors (and held the auction I’d read about) in the early 1920s. Today there are only eight Shakers remaining in the United States, all living in a community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

I hoped to take home a souvenir from Kentucky, and as we were leaving we stopped at the gift shop, where travelers can buy Shaker-inspired boxes, baskets, rugs, and sconces. Would a single candle on a sconce transform a toy-strewn city apartment into a refuge of contemplation and order? Probably not. I would have bought a broom, but I suspected it would cause consternation at the airport security gate. Empty-handed, we got into our car and set off for the world. “Silly lambs,” our entry in the journal might have read. “You will wish you were in the fold when the wolves get you!”

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP