Feb. 8, 2002
There are many lessons in history to be learned while crossing the United States, but few as entertaining and educational as one that awaits the traveler just outside the town of Harrodsburg, KY.
I approached Kentucky southbound from Ohio, across the Ohio River and into The Bluegrass State. Following the scenic route of Hwy 68 into Lexington, I continued another 30 miles, finally arriving at my destination, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
As I entered this National Historic Landmark, I knew immediately that I had stepped into another world, one far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern society. Quiet and serene, vistas of farmland stretched out before me, bordered by impressive, traditional rock fences.
Though the Kentucky Shakers are no longer in existence, they had a thriving community in the mid 1800s, living a peaceful, productive life. Nearly 500 Kentucky Shakers lived at Pleasant Hill during the 1820s, working and cultivating what was, at that time, 4,000 acres of land. They believed in simplicity and hard work, in equality and sustainability.
The effects of the Industrial Revolution, Civil War, and changing social values all had a bearing on the decline of the Shaker community. Over time the population dwindled, until they finally closed their doors in 1910. It became a country hamlet with the name Shakertown until 1961, when the process of restoring the buildings and property began.
Thanks to the strong craftsmanship of the Shakers, thirty-four of the original two hundred seventy buildings remain, offering lodging, dining, shopping, and a fascinating peek into years gone by.
I secured my room key from the main office and wandered up a path to the West Sister’s Building, one of sixteen buildings designated for overnight lodging. The building was extraordinarily quiet, and I tiptoed beyond the heavy wooden front door and into my spacious room, which offered high ceilings and plenty of windows for natural light.
A sign offered the simple Shaker phrase, “We Make You Kindly Welcome.” Shaker reproduction furniture decorated the room, including a bed with trundle underneath, writing desk and chair, dresser, rocking chairs and lamps. Modern amenities of private bath, phone, television, and ice bucket were present but cleverly hidden and barely noticeable.
With a room this inviting, I found myself tempted to linger indoors, but I was determined not to miss the family style dinner in the Trustees Office Dining Room. Seated at a quaint, candlelit wooden table in one of many rooms, I was soon served a bowl of relish appetizers, followed by corn sticks, minestrone soup, mixed greens with vinaigrette dressing, prime rib, zesty carrot casserole, brussels sprouts, potatoes, dinner rolls, pickled beets, and watermelon rinds. I almost laughed when asked if I had room for dessert. I managed a polite “no” and rolled myself out of the building, thankful for the walk back across the property to my room.
I settled in for a peaceful night, curled up on the high trundle bed, where I took advantage of the quiet to read and write.
Near midnight, as I reached to turn off the light, the serenity was suddenly broken by what I perceived to be a large brown bird flying around the room. I attempted to prop open the heavy door to the stairwell quietly, hoping not to disturb other guests at such a late hour. As I was waving my arms frantically, attempting to direct the flying creature into the hallway, I was greeted by a surprised security guard, who entered through the front door of the building.
Joe, my new best friend, entered the room and grabbed a towel to try to help. The heavy doors wouldn’t stay open on their own and the high ceilings provided plentiful flight space, so our efforts continued comically until suddenly the flying stopped. Quietly, I heard Joe say, “Here he is.” I turned to see, to my complete amazement, a bat hanging upside down inside one of my curtains.
I quickly told myself that surely I must have read somewhere that bats were not dangerous, and that the bat was probably the most frightened of the three of us. I asked Joe if this was planned entertainment specifically for California visitors, but he laughed and informed me that it was not.
Eventually, after more arm waving and towel swooshing, we succeeded in getting the uninvited guest into the hallway and finally outside. Joe resumed his rounds, and I sat on the bed again, alternately staring at the windows and rising to check the insides of curtains. At some point sleep arrived.
Morning brought another wonderful meal in the dining hall, this one offering a selection of juice, fresh fruits, muffins and egg dishes. I followed this with a tour of the 40-room Centre House Family Dwelling and an informative talk given by a costumed interpreter. The property was now buzzing with activity as day visitors arrived to tour the grounds.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill now functions as a living history museum. Self-guided tours allow visitors to meander between museum exhibits and to listen to costumed interpreters explain and demonstrate various facets of Shaker life, including the community’s theology and beliefs, their agricultural capabilities, and their love of music and dance.
Before leaving, I made stops at both the Post Office Craft Store and the Carpenters Shop Craft Store, where I found an extensive selection of Shaker reproduction pieces, books, handmade wooden toys, kitchen utensils, and other gift items. With so many choices, it’s wasn’t easy to decide. But I finally picked a variety of items to take home to family and friends, made my purchases, and headed out.
I left Shaker Village immensely grateful for this adventure in living history and the opportunity to learn about this fascinating group of people.
The midnight bat adventure was an added bonus too.