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Our Rich History: Pleasant memories of the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and appreciating its history

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, Kentucky holds special memories for me. At least once a year, and sometimes several times yearly during my childhood, my father would drive our family from Northern Kentucky to Lexington via Interstate-75 South. Then he would exit on US Route 68 west to “Shakertown.” Passing bucolic horse farms with their white-painted fences, we slowly descended into the valley of the Kentucky River. There the Palisades seemed to reach heavenward, with their limestone cliffs hugging the shorelines of the Kentucky River. Next, US 68 meandered in its ascent through an idyllic tree-covered scene. At the top of the hill, the restored Shaker Village awaited us. I was bursting with anticipation.

My father recalled that, during his youth, US 68 ran straight through Shakertown, past the then largely abandoned buildings of the former religious community. Like dad, I was fascinated by its history.

My mother, less enamored by history than dad and I were, loved the serenity of Shakertown and the opportunity to walk along its sidewalks and paths with our family. Once or twice, we bought tickets for the Kentucky River boat ride. We also looked forward to the Shaker musical performances by the talented Randy Folger (1952–1999). And our entire family always enjoyed lunch at the Dining Hall, where servers dressed in Shaker garb delivered food homestyle to tables. Fresh vegetables, soup, chicken, cornbread and all the fixings were simply mouthwatering.

After lunch, we would visit the large gift shop near the parking area before departing for home.

This Chosen Pleasant Hill: Shakers of the Kentucky Bluegrass, by Carol Medlicott and Christian Goodwillie

My frugal mother, who grew up in a large family during the Great Depression and seldom spent money on herself, would admire the Shaker cookbooks and cookware. Dad would always insist on buying something that she hesitated to buy for herself. One year, she bought a Shaker cookbook and another year, a cast-iron cornbread pan. On other occasions, she would insist that dad buy one of us children something that we were eyeing in the gift shop. I still cherish the book that they bought me, The Simple Spirit: A Pictorial Study of the Shaker Community at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (by Samuel W. Thomas and James C. Thomas; Pleasant Hills Press, 1973).

The restoration of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in the 1960s – and its opening to the public in 1968 — was one of Kentucky’s earliest and most important historic preservation projects. It had a major influence on my decision to pursue historic preservation as one of the subfields for my doctorate in History at the University of Cincinnati. You can imagine my literal joy in 2009, when being named Chair of the History and Geography department at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), I became a colleague and friend of NKU historical geographer Carol Medlicott, PhD. Medlicott is one of the nation’s premier Shaker scholars. Author of many scholarly articles and of Shaker book-length studies such as Issacher Bates: A Shaker’s Journey (University Press of New England, 2013) and Richard McNemar and the Music of the Shaker West (co-author with Christian Goodwillie, Kent State University Press, 2013), Medlicott is also an accomplished performer of Shaker songs.

Dr. Medlicott has joined Christian Goodwillie, also a nationally respected Shaker scholar, in publishing This Chosen Pleasant Hill: Shakers of the Kentucky Bluegrass (Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Kentucky Inc., 2022). Goodwillie is the director and curator of special collections and archives in the Burke Library at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. The author of many articles and books on Shaker Studies, he has served as the president of the Communal Studies Association, and from 2001 through 2009, was curator of collections at historic Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Medlicott and Goodwillie’s This Chosen Pleasant Hill is an enthralling and well-researched overview of the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers, officially called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, traced their origins to the Wardleys (James and Jane) of England, as well as to Mother Ann Lee who immigrated to America in 1774.

Unlike other Christians, however, the Shakers believed “that Christ’s return was a spiritual one, and that the New Testament was not talking about a literal return of a bodily person,” but rather, that “the millennial reign of Christ on earth had begun” (p. 31). Accordingly, they prepared the kingdom of heaven on earth, living celibate, communal lives. They were hard-working people who celebrated the simplicity of nature yet proved immensely innovative in culturally and technologically significant ways.

Medlicott’s and Goodwillie’s book is organized topically. Its 27 short chapters work perfectly for today’s busy readers. Each contains gems of wisdom, placing the Shakers within their geographical and historical contexts. The result is an exposition of the Shakers against the backdrop of both United States’ and religious history, from the late 1700s through the early 1900s. Medlicott and Goodwillie are informative and fascinating guides into the Shaker world, offering just enough explanations to whet the reader’s appetite for exploring more—and even more importantly, for visiting the Pleasant Hill site itself.

The Shaker community at Pleasant Hill was “an intentional Christian community” (p. 11), founded in 1805–06, reaching its likely “peak of membership” in 1823 at 491 Shakers (p. 12). Such a large community required dozens of specialized buildings, as well as numerous workers, including hired laborers from the surrounding countryside. Medlicott and Goodwillie capture the vast extent of the community and its enlargements over the years, aided by a host of excellent illustrations and maps.

They document the architecture of the structures, from the wooden 1820 Meeting House to the brick East (1817) and West (1821) Family Dwellings to the limestone Centre Family Dwelling (begun 1824; completed 1834) (p. 87).

Centre Family Dwelling (originally from the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress), Fig. 10.1, p. 86.

The authors explain the daily lives of the Shakers, from their dining halls to their “retiring” (sleeping) rooms, from illnesses to healthcare, and from their celebrations of life to their funerary practices. Assiduous, organized, and innovative, the Shakers at Pleasant Hill produced goods that they sold throughout the region and the American South. They availed themselves of nearby river, road, and rail transportation to reach distant markets, selling seeds, herbs, fruit preserves, brooms, wool, textiles, and more. Most surprisingly, they were specialists in the breeding and sale of “pedigree shorthorn Durham cattle” (p. 183).

Shaker theological beliefs had profound cultural consequences. Believers in a “dual-gendered nature of God and the dual-gendered nature of the Christ Spirit” (p. 33), they practiced equality of the sexes. Likewise, they were abolitionists, that is against slavery. They accepted free Blacks as equal members, and in some instances, even paid for the freedom of enslaved Blacks to join their society.

Likewise, they accepted immigrant members, including a large contingent of Swedes.

Shaker theology also manifested itself in powerful worship services that visitors sometimes regarded as bizarre yet entertaining. “Shakers were called ‘shakers’ initially because they danced in worship. They sincerely believed that not moving actively during worship signaled that one was literally held in the bondage of sin. Physical motions of various kinds—including marching, swaying, turning, reeling, and hand gestures—all were vital forms of religious expression for the Shakers” (p. 32).

To purchase tickets or see the full range of activities available at Shaker Village, click this image to go to website.

Shakers loved to sing, producing legions of hymns. By 1838, the Shaker society at Pleasant Hill had adopted the “New Era,” (known to scholars as the Era of Manifestations)” (p. 50) “This was a time of internal spiritual revival where Shaker sisters and brethren became instruments, or mediums, for communications, comprising messages, visions, prophecies, songs, dance, and social instructions, from the spirits of the departed.” (pp. 50-51).

As the authors detail, the pacifist Shaker society at Pleasant Hill was adversely affected by the Civil War. Although they were exempt from the military draft, their community was subject to marauding bands of guerilla fighters (including John Hunt Morgan’s Raiders), as well as the encampment of both Confederate and Union troops. The Shakers fed and medically attended to everyone in need, regardless of allegiance. During the major Battle of Perryville (seventeen miles distant), “Shaker cooks fed thousands and were dismayed to see hundreds more helping themselves to corn from outlying fields” (p. 153). Shaker trade with the South was curtailed during the Civil War.

Following the war, it never fully recovered. Meanwhile, as the nation industrialized and urbanized, the Shaker way of life became less appealing for converts. In 1910, the society at Pleasant Hill dissolved, and the final dozen members sold their land, arranging for the buyer to care for them until their deaths. The last remaining Shaker at Pleasant Hill, Sister Mary Settles, died in 1923.

Medlicott and Goodwillie’s fascinating history of the Shaker society at Pleasant Hill is a must-read for anyone interested in Shakers, religious history, and Kentucky history. Produced for the nonprofit Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Kentucky, Inc., which operates the restored village, the book is available for sale at Pleasant Hill as well as through Amazon.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our Ohio River Valley Region. If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University and the author of many books and articles.

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