Like a snow globe showing a scene from long ago, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill takes us back to the early 1800s where horse-drawn carriages, with harnesses jingling, meander along pathways lit by candlelight, and the music of holiday caroling makes a perfect backdrop to Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark — and the country’s largest private collection of original 19th century buildings.
Once the third-largest Shaker community in the United States, Pleasant Hill at one time had more than 260 structures built between 1809 and 1875.
Though the Shakers, who devoted their lives to the ideals of simplicity, celibacy and hard work as well as sexual equality and the idea that all humans should be free, are gone now, the spirit of the village carries on.
Thirty-four buildings remain, all immaculately restored to showcase how life was lived in one of the most successful utopian communities in American history.
The village, lovely at any time of year, takes on a special feel during the holidays.
“Christmas for the Shakers told of the holiday’s religious significance in a different way,” says Aaron Genton, collections manager at Pleasant Hill, which is located just outside of Harrodsburg, the oldest city in Kentucky.
“They emphasized the day for spiritual growth — a way of cleansing yourself from the physical. As time went on, the Shakers adopted more worldly traditions — caroling, trees, boxes for collecting money to give to the less-fortunate and even Santa Claus.”
Today, the holidays are fully embraced while keeping with the soft-focused charms of yesteryear. Celebrating begins shortly after Thanksgiving when the public joins staff for the annual holiday decorating.
Many activities for whole family
December programing includes special candlelight evening tours, Jingle Bell Shuttle Rides and Illuminated Evenings, each with its own musical performances, tours and programs.
There are also letter-writing to Santa, high teas with Mrs. Claus, teas with family and friends, Lantern Tours and a hands-on workshop where participants can learn to make wreaths.
Any time of the year, this is the type of place where classes in basket-weaving and making hand-tied brooms fill up quickly and even more so during the holidays. Campfires offer a chance to warm up and sip complimentary hot chocolates.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at the Trustee’s Table and are based on traditional Kentucky classic recipes and the dedication here of seed-to-table meals with ingredients frequently coming from the village’s apiaries, gardens and orchards with an emphasis on what the Shakers would have had in their kitchens.
Menu items include Weisenberger Cornmeal fried catfish (the cornmeal coming from the Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kenutcky, owned and operated by six generations of the Weisenberger family), country fried chicken, sorghum cider-glazed ham chop, smothered quail (we told you it was a step back in time) and for dessert, the wonderfully sweet tart Shaker lemon pie.
Pleasant Hill, postcard pretty in the winter when the leafless trees reveal the steep, scenic gorges and limestone outcroppings of the Kentucky River palisades stretching for miles, is the only National Historic Landmark where visitors can spend the night in rooms Shakers lived and worked.
Overnight options include guest rooms, suites and private cottages located throughout the village in 13 Shaker buildings. Each features Shaker reproduction furniture, original hardwood floors and views of the village and countryside beyond.
Immersion here is an entry for families to discover what life was like during a unique period of American history. Ahead of their times in many ways, members of United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearance, called Shakers because of their ecstatic movements during prayer, abolished slavery among their own as well as bought slaves to free them.
In 1817, they granted women equal rights — a century or more before all women in the U.S. would be allowed to vote. Their industriousness brought prosperity to the Shakers.
Preserving the uniqueness of this heritage is part of Pleasant Hill’s mission. In 1840, around 6,000 Shakers lived in 19 communal villages in New England, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
Only one remains today, its membership down to two. But the ideals of pacifism, communal living, taking care of each other, seeing past gender and color lines and a focus on spirituality rather than worldly goods remains. It is a message worthy of passing on.