Part living history museum, part rustic resort, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a quiet retreat where garden to table means more than just buying produce at the local farmers market. Help gather eggs, make apple butter, or learn how to harness oxen — it’s all part of life on the farm
story+photos: Mary Ann DeSantis
The lilting melody echoing from the large white “Meeting Hall” had visitors stopping for a peek inside. Was it the voice of an angel or maybe the spirit of a Shaker who lived on this pastoral Kentucky property between 1805 and 1910? For a moment, it seemed the acapella rendition was coming from on high, but it turns out Roberta Burnes is a volunteer singer who also happens to be a state environmentalist when she’s not dressed in the traditional Shaker garb. And she’s not a Shaker either. The last Shaker in Kentucky died in 1923, and buildings on the 2,900-acre property sat vacant for nearly 40 years.
Shakers, the largest and best-known communal society in 19th century America, established Pleasant Hill in 1805 on a limestone bluff about 30 miles from Lexington, Ky. The sect chose a peaceful way of life with a quest for simplicity. At its peak in the 1850s, Pleasant Hill was home to approximately 500 Shakers occupying 250 buildings.
During the 1960s, private donors worked to restore the abandoned buildings, and the state even rerouted seven miles of U.S. 68 that ran straight through the middle of the village and came perilously close to buildings that had survived since the early 1800s. Thirteen of the 34 original buildings were renovated for lodging, and the entire Shaker Village became a National Historic Landmark. People have been coming here now for decades to reconnect with nature and a simpler way of life, including actress Ashley Judd, who first visited as a child and now serves on the board of trustees.
“Parents and grandparents bring children so they can be stimulated by ‘unplugged’ activities,” says David Larson, vice president of retail operations. “Many children have never seen a working farm.”
Kiara and Aislin Crane, visiting Shaker Village with their parents, Diane and Daryl, gather eggs at the Learn & Grow program.
Such was the case for Diane and Daryl Crane, who brought their daughters Kiara and Aislin for a day on the farm, starting with egg gathering at the weekly Learn & Grow program for kids of all ages. “We wanted them to see what it’s like,” explains Diane. “They are so active and we thought this would be good for them.”
In the meantime, volunteer David Paris prepped two oxen for a bulky harness. He spent a good part of the day leading the beasts along the “turnpike,” the wide maple tree-lined path that used to be the highway to Lexington. “Randall cattle were almost extinct,” he says. “It’s my job to teach everyone about these oxen.”
There were plenty of other things to learn and do, as well. I began with a hike on the east trail to catch the sunrise above the Kentucky River, where Shaker Village offers riverboat rides aboard its “Dixie Belle” on the weekends. The mist coming off the river offered an ethereal view from the trail, especially when I stumbled upon a pasture of white Percheron horses. Shaker Village is all about having authentic experiences where you can reconnect with nature along the 40 miles of hiking, biking, and equine trails and at the 1,000-acre nature preserve.
However, a weekend in Shaker Village offers a lot more than peaceful walks in the woods. Fall officially begins with HarvestFest in late September and is followed by Fall-on-the-Farm weekends in October where guests learn to make butter and cider from apples picked from the property’s orchard. Bluegrass concerts, chamber music festivals, stargazing programs, and craft workshops are all a part of the Shaker Village experience. My favorite was the Garden Supper where a long table was set up outdoors and guests from around the country got to know each other over food that had been grown in the nearby garden.
“Sitting at a communal table — we’re doing what the Shakers were doing 200 years ago,” says Larson. “People mistakenly think Shakers lived monastic lives, but they were a joyous people who loved music danced and socialized.”
Carriage ride along the “turnpike,” the wide maple tree-lined path that used to be the highway to Lexington.
The Shakers were also dedicated to perfection, which is evident in the architectural details and craftsmanship of the buildings that still exist. Today, architects visit and marvel at the perfect symmetry of the matching spiral staircases in the Trustees Building, which houses the registration area, several guest rooms, and an award-winning restaurant.
Although the Shaker Village experience is certainly authentic, modern conveniences do exist. Most buildings have Internet access, and all of the beds feature TempurPedic mattresses on Shaker-style furniture.
Before bedtime, I sat by the fire pit and roasted marshmallows — something I had not done since I was a little kid. The quiet moments were a chance to reflect, especially on the words I heard earlier in the evening from Shaker Village CEO Maynard Crossland: “There is something special about this place… you can’t see it and we can’t tell you what it is.”
I felt it, though. And it was magic.
For information and rates, visit shakervillageky.org
Families and groups may want to use Shaker Village’s Tanyard House, built in 1824. Complete with kitchenette, the secluded two-story cottage has two bedrooms and a large pullout sofa.