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The Shakers of Pleasant Hill

Photos and story by Kathleen Walls - American Roads Magazine

Interpreters at Shaker Village
Long ago and far away, a simple peace loving people were searching for a place they could live in harmony with nature and their fellow man. In 1779, a few of their number had sailed from their homeland in search of a place to settle. Many settled in New York and founded a colony there. In 1805 some of the group moved down into Kentucky. They found a beautiful land of rolling hills and streams. The soil was rich. They put down roots in a rural area they called Pleasant Hill.

Mostly things were peaceful in spite of a few disputes with their neighbors. That was to be expected. After all, they had such radical beliefs: racial equality, gender equality, land held in common by the entire community and, strangest of all, celibacy. They also believed the veil between life and death was gossamer thin and that the dead could and did often communicate with the living.

A "Shaker" woman prepares for washday

In the nineteenth century, the idea of a woman making decisions in business and all aspects of life was unheard of. So, too, the idea of a black man and a white man considering themselves equal. Yes, many of the ideas of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing are strange even today. At first people mocked them and called them Shakers but as they saw the craftsmanship of their builders, the good stewardship of their farmers and the honest dealing of the group as a whole, they were left alone to work their land, build their homes and furniture and live their life.

The Shakers came by their beliefs through the teachings of Ann Lee who was born in Manchester, England on February 29, 1736. She was a member of the group called the Shaking Quakers. While she was imprisoned for trying to spread these beliefs, she had a vision that she was the second coming of Christ and when she was released she founded the new religion in 1772.She taught her followers that God was a dual personage, male and female, rather than the masculine orientated traditional belief of all male trinity.

They interpreted the passage in Genesis that stated “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female, created he them.” To mean that both man and woman were in God’s image therefore God was both male and female; father and mother. They did believe Jesus was the first coming of the messiah but unlike traditional Christians, they believed the second coming had already occurred with a female incarnation, Ann Lee, based on her vision. Thus they felt we were living in the last millennium and since all were humans were brothers and sisters should not marry as they felt the world as we knew it was ending there was no longer a need to procreate. Instead they believed people should live communally as one family of brothers and sisters.

The Central Family Dwelling

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution and changing lifestyles caused a decline in the Shakers. The last Pleasant Hill Shaker died in 1923. Their village passed into private hands and was called Shakertown. The people and their beliefs were almost forgotten. The beautiful buildings they had raised were being used as gas stations, auto parts stores and worse. There was no protection for the finely crafted old buildings: they could have been torn down and replaced with McDonalds or even subdivisions at will.

Then in1961, a non-profit corporation was formed to restore the old village and offer a historic teaching facility for the public to learn about this little known historic and religious phenomena. Today, they preserve and interperate 34 buildings. The Inn at Shaker Village is spread out between 15 of the restored buildings.You can put yourself in the heart of this unique community for a day trip or, if you really want to experience the feeling of their simple lifestyle, for several days. Along with the Inn, there is a restaurant that serves mouthwatering traditional Shaker and Kentucky classics. If you only have room for one dish, have some of the corn pudding. The beautifully crafted Trustee's Office Building is now the dining hall. You can't help but be awestruck by the craftsmanship of the graceful twin staircase in here.

Phillip Mulhall singing in
the Meeting Hall

The Meeting Hall is especially interesting both for its archeticture and the music and dancing that did -and still does, thanks to interperters- happen there. I had the good fortune to be there when one interperter, Phillip Mulhall, was preforming some of the Shaker songs. That man has a beautiful voice, he makes the simple music live again.

Craft shops will offer you a chance to own a peace of this almost lost heritage. The cookbooks tempted me as did many of the hand-crafted items. For the animal lover, don't miss the barnyard animals. I spoke with Billy Pruitt. His official tittle is "Ag Interpreter" but he said he is actually the "animal's slave." He showed me the baby goats and other barnyard inhabitants. While we spoke, one of the tiny goats and a huge tom turkey had a slight disagreement. It was so cute to see that little goat butt the big turkey with his tiny nubs of horns. Throughout the village, you will find interpreters working on the crafts and everyday life tasks that the Shakers performed. It is so easy to slip back in time even if only in imagination.

The tiny goat

When I visited I spent the night in a pleasant room in West Family Dwelling. The room was furnished with simple yet beautiful Shaker reproduction furniture. A large living room area was to the rear of the building. I could imagine many of the Shakers gathered in that room on a cool evening, discussing the latest crops or perhaps the newest baby goats. Just beyond was the game room and kitchen, which still had the old, baking oven built into the wall. It was so easy to feel in touch with the spirits of these simple people who once created these buildings as a part of the “new heaven on earth” that was so much a part of their lives.

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