This week we decided to skip the fireworks and instead ran away for a few days to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, located near Lexington, Kentucky for some rest and relaxation. Shaker Village is about 30 minutes away from Lexington but is truly worlds apart. Set in the rolling hills near Harrodsburg, Pleasant Hill is a beautifully preserved Shaker settlement dating to 1805. You can visit for the day or like us, stay overnight. We stayed three nights in the East Family Dwelling, one of the residences that housed 40-60 shaker men and women, and we ate at the Trustee’s Table, the onsite restaurant located in the Trustee’s building. In addition to visiting Pleasant Hill, we also went hiking on a small portion of the 40 miles of trails around the village, took in a bourbon distillery tour with a tasting and because we just could not get enough, on the way home, we visited the South Union Shaker settlement outside of Bowling Green, KY. We had a wonderful time, learned a lot, ate well and recharged. For Lee, Pleasant Hill is a wonderful place for photography, in particular, for studies in symmetry. There is more to tell than will fit in a single post, so today I will focus on our time at Shaker Village and what makes it a great place to visit.
A Paper Thin Slice of Shaker History
Why were they called Shakers? They danced, swayed and spoke in tongues during services, so they were referred to as the “Shaking Quakers” which then was shortened to Shakers. While the name started as an insult, the Shakers adopted the name for themselves.
The three cornerstones of Shaker faith were Confession (members confessed to their Elders and Eldresses), Communalism (all property was community property) and Celibacy (all members signed a pledge of celibacy upon joining). Simplicity was woven into all facets of their lives and was a living practice of their faith that ran through their work, their cooking and their worship. They were early conservationists, reusing and re-purposing their materials. The Shakers were also pacifists, which caused difficulties during the Civil War as both the North and South distrusted them.
The Shakers were progressive innovators and scientific farmers. They were skilled artisans and ran thriving business selling seeds, brooms and other goods. They had running water before the White House did and had one of the first water towers in Kentucky. They believed in racial equality and accepted African American members as early as 1811. They also believed in the duality of God and the absolute equality of men and women. Each settlement was led by two men and two women equally. Within each settlement, the community was separated into “families” of 40 – 60 men and women who lived together (yet separately) in a “family dwelling” where they lived and worshipped together. Each house had an Elder and an Eldress who led the family. The Community leaders were composed of two male and two female trustees who lived and worked separately from the rest of the community. At its height, Pleasant Hill had over 500 members before eventually dwindling down.
The information above is just the tiniest sliver of background, and it leaves out huge swaths of Shaker history and belief, so while there is simply no way to do justice to the history of the Shakers here, I have added a couple of links below for anyone who would like to explore more about them. The Maine Shakers site in particular has free ebooks written by and about Shakers, so that you can experience their history from their perspective.
Pleasant Hill Shaker Village is the best preserved of the Shaker settlements, with over 2800 acres of land and 30 buildings remaining. They offer accommodations in the very buildings that the Shakers lived and worked which appealed mightily to us. On this trip, Lee and I stayed in the East Family Dwelling, which was the first of the family houses built by the Pleasant Hill Shakers. Our spacious and very comfortable room would have once slept three or four Shakers, but we had a king sized bed all to ourselves. Most of the furnishings are Shaker in design. Many people who have never heard of the Shakers themselves, have heard of Shaker furniture, where form and function meet in perfect harmony creating simple, yet elegant furnishings. The floors are hard wood, with area rugs, and the room had plenty of natural light with windows that overlooked the working farm. We had a private bath with all of the amenities you would expect including nice toiletries and thick fluffy towels. Our building was open to visitors during the day, then limited to overnight guests in the evenings. At night you are well guarded by the two resident cats, who are friendly and who appreciate bacon the way God intended. Prices are very reasonable overall and rooms are priced by size and bed configuration. There are discounts in the restaurant and shops for overnight visitors.
The shops are well curated with a variety of shaker and shaker inspired items. In addition to hats, scarves, hurricane lamp shades, spices, tea, seeds, pictures, skincare products (the same as are in your room), books, toys and more, you can also buy some shaker furniture pieces.
Things to Do
The main activities revolve around the history of Shaker Village, and include tours, educational programs, horseback riding, wagon rides, boat rides and hiking. At 4:30 each day, you can watch the ducks parade off to bed, which is adorable. There is live music on weekends and plenty of special events throughout the year including a juried craft show, trail runs and food festivals. There are 40 miles of trails, ranging from moderate to strenuous in difficulty and from 3 – 6 miles long. There is also a waterfall that is a short hike from the west lot and totally worth the effort. We stayed there for a long time just soaking in the beauty and serenity.
Once you have had enough peace and serenity, head to Lexington. The drive alone is worth it for scenery. You are also within striking distance of several distilleries on the bourbon trail and if you like horses, they are everywhere, and there is even a horse theme park. On your way into Lexington, take a quick side jaunt towards Versailles (sounds like vir – sales, not like vir-sigh) and drive by the ginormous castle.
There are two on-site options for food, the restaurant in the Trustee’s house, and the take-out selection in the craft shop.
The Trustees house contains The Trustee’s Table a farm to table restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is of the hearty country sort, a buffet with eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, sausage gravy, fried apples and an assortment of healthier items including fruit from the farm. With breakfast, a basket of biscuits and pumpkin muffins were served. Hearty is the descriptor here.
Lunch is completely different. An assortment of sandwiches, salads and some shaker dishes, including fried chicken, make their appearance, along with a bowl of coleslaw and a basket of corn muffins. A variety of deserts are available, but the one you want to try at least once is the Shaker lemon pie. It is a shaker dish that perfectly encapsulates the Shaker ethos of wasting nothing while being exceptionally delicious.
Dinner.…oh my…such happy memories. Our first night there they debuted their summer menu and it was mouthwatering. We had such a good experience the first night that we changed our plans and came back the second night to try more dishes. The stand outs were: cold cucumber and buttermilk soup; bourbon peach barbecued chicken with warm fingerling potato salad; seared Idaho trout with lemon butter over a warm sorghum salad (scrumptious) with garden vegetables; and the pork chop with polenta, braised red cabbage and a miso maple pan sauce. All dinners included a relish bowl from the garden and yeast rolls, as if you needed to eat anything else. A stand out in desert was the sour cream panna cotta with a butter rum sauce served in a jelly jar. I may have licked the jar.
If you are looking for picnic supplies for your hike, stop by the craft shop, where there are sandwiches, side salads and baked goods that you can pick up and take on the trail. The cucumber, tomato and corn salad with a light vinaigrette was a standout, as was the super fudgy brownie.
Who should visit?
I think this is a great place for everyone to explore at least once, but in particular,
- Families – This is a great day trip place for children, with many programs related to the farm animals. They bring out animals during the day for some of the programs, and the parade of ducks heading off to bed is simply adorable.
- Photographers –Good shots are everywhere. Just before dawn is magic time.
- Couples – This is a great place to reconnect as a couple. It is peaceful and gentle and oddly romantic.
- Family reunions – There is plenty of room for large groups, and the family houses have comfortable common spaces with couches and chairs.
- Church or business retreats – There are plenty of meeting facilities, and no one will go away hungry. There are many room configurations for all kinds of groups.
- History lovers – This is the mother-load of historical experiences. Stay overnight, take all of the program tours and then go to South Union Shaker village for a completely different experience.
- Architecture Lovers – The buildings will make you happy. Explore them all, especially the Trustees house and the Meeting House. Take the Preservation tour. Stay overnight and walk the village after dark for a whole new experience.
- Horse Lovers – They have stables, horses and riding paths. Horses have the right of way over pedestrians and cars.
- Nature Lovers – You will be very happy here. The rolling hills are stunning. The hikes are enjoyable and the water fall is lovely. A full grown deer leapt out of the woods right in front of us on our hike, and we are pretty sure we spotted a really big mink plus bunnies, squirrels and a huge variety of singing birds.
If I sound like we are a bit in love with Shaker village, it is because we are. The scenery, food, activities and history combine to make a place that is absolutely worth seeking out for a day for a long weekend. If you have family that go to University of Kentucky, consider ditching the big box hotels and stay a bit further out. The character and experience are like no other we have found.