Step back in time at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
Take I-75 to Lexington, Kentucky, and just southwest of the city you’ll leave the bland, featureless interstate for a picturesque stretch of historic U.S. Route 68 known as the Kentucky State Scenic Byway. You’re less than an hour from Harrodsburg, home to the pastoral Shangri-La that is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
The Shakers, otherwise known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, built a number of communities in the 19th century that stretched from New England to the wilds of Kentucky. The religious order—descended from Protestantism—sought to create an ideal society based upon piety, simplicity, and industriousness, along with other new-fangled ideas such as cooperative living and equality of the sexes (and unfortunately for the group’s longevity, a promise to remain celibate). One of these communities settled in Harrodsburg on a spot that the Shakers dubbed “Pleasant Hill.” This particular village had hundreds of “believers” in its heyday, and was operational from 1805 all the way up to 1910, when the final set of members disbanded. But their way of life was not all lost: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill now operates as an historic site, with museums, exhibits, demonstrations, and a working inn and farm.
For the Shakers, work was worship and worship was work, and many structures remain to demonstrate their skill and dedication. Shaker Village has converted a few of these buildings into historically appointed living quarters designed to give overnight guests a sense of Shaker daily life through reproduction furniture and decor while making room for modern-day amenities like coffee makers and hair dryers. The 1839 Trustees’ Office, which is one of the main buildings in the village, has a number of spacious rooms, an on-site farm-to-table restaurant, and striking Shaker-designed details like three-story spiral staircases. Light sleepers: Consider packing earplugs, as these old buildings have paper-thin walls.
If you’re traveling with a large group, book one of the suites scattered throughout the property’s other buildings, some of which can accommodate up to eight people.
Part of the Shaker Village experience is wandering and discovering. Book a guided tour or wagon ride, or simply ramble around. The Living History Museum tells the story of Shakers through videos, photos, and artifacts; see classic Shaker crafting in action as costumed interpreters demonstrate weaving, broom and basket making, and woodworking using period-specific tools. Stroll through the painstakingly maintained vegetable and herb gardens that show just how life would have been at this spot more than 100 years ago. Visit the working farm and barn to see hens, roosters, turkeys, horses, lambs, and two Scotch Highland calves, Annie and Andy—you’ll recognize them by their long horns and shaggy coats. Wear comfortable, close-toed shoes for your village walks, though; many paths are paved with tiny pebbles that will sneak between your toes.
For an easy trek, strike out for Shaker Village’s 3,000-acre nature preserve, which has miles of hiking and bridle trails that wind through restored prairies, fields, and woods. Be prepared to encounter wild quail and beavers on the five-mile Quail Hollow trail, giant old-growth red oak and sycamore trees on the half-mile Towering Sycamore Trail, and an old Shaker gristmill on the one-mile Heritage Trail.
Start the day at the Dining Room in the historic Trustees’ Office building with a buffet of grits, biscuits and gravy, bacon and sausage, and scrambled eggs. Or try a spin on a Kentucky classic for lunch: The open-faced “Cold Brown” features roasted turkey, Swiss cheese, sweet red onion, and sliced hard boiled egg topped with homemade Thousand Island dressing and bacon. For dinner, pick out a Southern standard like skillet fried chicken or country ham steak with red-eye gravy. During the growing season, some 30 percent of the kitchen’s supplies come straight from the village’s own heirloom garden. In cold-weather months, dining moves to the Winter Kitchen, a more intimate space with full lunch and dinner menus and a cozy fireplace.
If you’re visiting during the summer and fall, consider booking a seat at one of the popular Garden Suppers. Held outdoors under a large old tree and within sight of the huge garden plots, these four-course plated dinners have a beautifully prepared “seed-to-table” menu paired with wine selections and tasty table snacks like pickled vegetables. Linger at your place until the stars come out and then move to one of the fire pits surrounded by Adirondack chairs to have yourself a proper sit.
One of the most enduring Shaker legacies is their high-quality workmanship, found most often in expertly made home goods. Shops in Shaker Village sell reproduction baskets, brooms, soaps, wooden boxes, candles, and furniture made by skilled craftspeople and volunteers. You can also pick up old-fashioned foods, toys, and cookbooks that carry on the Shaker tradition.
The Shakers weren’t long for this world—their vow of celibacy saw to that. But they left a legacy of hard work, ingenuity, and a tireless utopian vision that you can still escape to and enjoy.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Rd., Harrodsburg, (800) 734-5411, shakervillageky.org
Originally published in the November 2013 issue