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Shaker Retreat

June 2024
5min read

A museum village near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, lets visitors experience Shaker style by spending the night

“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.

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

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