Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

From Academic Kids

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The Trustees' Office served both as administrative headquarters for the community and as a guest house.

Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, is the site of a Shaker religious community that flourished from 1805 to 1910. Following a preservationist effort that began in 1961, the site, now a National Historic Landmark, has become a popular tourist destination. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, or Shakertown, as it is known by residents of the area, is located 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Lexington, in Kentucky's Bluegrass region.




On January 1, 1805, with eleven Shaker communities already established in New York and New England, three Shaker missionaries set out to find new converts among the pioneers then pouring into the western lands by way of Cumberland Gap and the Ohio. By August, they had gathered a small group of new adherants to the doctrine of Mother Ann Lee, many of whom had earlier been influenced by the fervent Cane Ridge Revival. In December 1806, forty-four converts of legal age signed a covenant agreeing to mutual support and the common ownership of property.

The community began living together on the 140-acre (0.57 km²) farm of Elisha Thomas. Additional converts were quickly added, and the property swelled to 4,369 acres (17.68 km²). By 1812 three communal families—East, Centre, and West—had been formed, and a fourth, North, was established as a "gathering family" for prospective converts. On June 2, 1814, 128 Believers bound themselves together in a more formal covenant that established the community in the pattern of the Mother Colony in New Lebanon, New York.

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Centre Family Dwelling, once home to over 100 Shakers, was constructed of limestone quarried from the Kentucky River.

Through the Civil War and Reconstruction

Last days

Life at Pleasant Hill

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The interior of the water tower—perhaps the first to be constructed in Kentucky

Many visitors to Pleasant Hill, observing the nineteenth-century architecture, crafts, and clothing, mistakenly assume that the Shakers, like the Amish, rejected technological advancements. In fact, the Shakers were inventors or early adopters of many new tools and techniques. For example, in the early 1830s the Shakers of Pleasant Hill constructed a water tower on a high plot of ground. A horse-drawn pump lifted water into the tower, and from there a system of pipes conveyed it to the kitchens, cellars, and wash houses. In the wash houses, washing machines (also powered by horses) were built to reduce the enormous chore of laundering the community's clothes and linens.

Preservation effort

Following the dissolution of the Shaker society in 1910, the property changed hands several times and was used for a variety of purposes. The Meeting House, for instance, was converted for use as an automotive garage; remarkably, the wood floor, built to withstand the fervent dancing of several hundred brethren and sisters, proved strong enough to support the vehicles driven onto its surface. Some years later the structure was again converted, this time for use as a Baptist church.

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Staircase in Trustees' Office
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Horses grazing at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

Following World War II, there was a renewed interest in the crumbling village of Pleasant Hill. The former Shaker colony found an unlikely admirer in Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani. Having mentioned Pleasant Hill in his writings as early as 1949, Merton took considerable interest in the community from his first visit there in 1959 until his death in 1968. Describing his first look inside the Trustee's Office in 1959, Merton wrote in his journal of the:

marvelous double winding stair going up to the mysterious clarity of a dome on the roof ... quiet sunlight filtering in—a big Lebanon cedar outside one of the windows ... All the other houses are locked up. There is Shaker furniture only in the center family house. I tried to get in it and a gloomy old man living in the back told me curtly "it was locked up." The empty fields, the big trees—how I would love to explore those houses and listen to that silence. In spite of the general decay and despair there is joy there still and simplicity... Shakers fascinate me."

Others shared the fascination. In 1961 a group of Lexington-area citizens led by Joseph Graves and Earl D. Wallace launched an effort to restore the property. By 1964 the Friends of Pleasant Hill, as they called themselves, had organized a non-profit corporation, raised funds for operating expenses, and secured a $2 million federal loan to purchase and restore the site. James Lowry Cogar, a former Woodford County resident and first curator of Colonial Williamsburg, was recruited to oversee the complex preservationist project.

Today, with 34 original 19th century buildings and 2,800 acres (11 km²) of farmland, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill claims to be "the largest historic community of its kind in America."

Visiting Shakertown

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A craftsman, dressed as a Shaker brother, makes boxes in the traditional manner.

Visitors to Pleasant Hill can tour the grounds, dine in the Trustee's house, view museum exhibits, listen to performances of Shaker music, observe artisans and farmers at work using traditional 19th century methods, hike the nature trails, and take a riverboat cruise of the Kentucky River. An admission fee is required for most of the tours and exhibits. Overnight lodging is available in many of the restored dwellings.

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