Sunday, April 22, 2012

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill - Tranquillity in Kentucky Bluegrass Country

As the song goes "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning." However, depending on your taste, I’d say that Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, could give Carolina a run for its money.
Meeting House at Shaker Village
By the look of the worn stone fences that lined the road I drove on in the dark of a Kentucky spring evening., I knew I was getting close to my destination. I’d read that the Shaker religious community once hired a man to build the fences at a cost of $1,000 a mile, and, over the course of 12 years, he constructed 40 miles of the picturesque stone walls that gave the area the look of rural Ireland or Wales.
Pulling into the Shaker Village parking lot at what had originally been the trustees building after a long seven hour drive, I reveled in the warm glow of the surroundings, then headed up the old stone staircase into the handsome though humble building. After a brief stop to check in at the front desk, I made my way up to the second floor by way of one of two identical curved staircases (one originally for the men, the other for the women), found my accommodations and nestled in for the night in a room furnished with Shaker reproductions, including the bed.
The next morning, I got my first glimpse of Shaker Village by daylight and what a sight it was. Due to an unusually warm March, everything - daffodils and forsythia to lilacs, red bud and dogwood - was in full bloom simultaneously. Add in venerable old trees and meadows full of that famous Kentucky bluegrass and I was in bucolic bliss.
Tom McIntosh Making Oval Boxes at Shaker Village
After sating my appetite with a morning breakfast buffet included some tasty country ham in the Trustees Dining Hall, I headed outdoors for a tour with Susan Lyons Hughes, the Shaker museum manager.
"Pleasant Hill, one of two Kentucky Shaker communities, got its start in 1805, when Shaker missionaries arrived from New York to start a new community," said Hughes as I relished in the fresh cool air of a flower scented breeze.
By the next year, 44 converts joined the celibate community that shared the work, property and profits in common. At its height in 1839, the community grew to 5,000 acres and 491 celibate members who lived or worked in 260 different and sturdy structures.
Shakers were very good farmers and craftsmen, and their goods and products commanded higher prices than that of their neighbors or competitors as far away as New Orleans. However, after the Civil War, the community started a slow decline and the community finally dissolved in 1910.
From then until 1961, the property was privately owned until a group of preservationists formed a non-profit and began a successful restoration project. Today, Shaker Village has a total of 34 restored structures, 13 of which hold rooms for overnight guests, backing up its claim to be the largest historic community of its kind in the nation. The property boasts nearly 3,000 acres, most of which are a nature preserve with a 40-mile trail system open to hikers and bikers.
During my stay, I especially enjoyed the living history interpreters who, dressed in traditional clothing, demonstrate Shaker crafts like broom making, cooperage and the community’s iconic oval box making in village buildings. All of the crafts, including the colorful oval boxes that come in a variety of sizes and hues, are sold in the village gift shop, definitely worth a browse.
In season, visitors can take either a self guided or guided tour of the village, listen to talks on Shaker beliefs, history and customs, take a ride on the Dixie Belle riverboat and attend a musical performance or the annual chamber music festival.
As a special treat, lunch or dinner in the cozy atmosphere of the Trustees Dining Hall includes a chance to taste some Shaker specialty foods such as pickled watermelon rind, its signature tomato celery soup, cole slaw to die for and seasonal Kentucky favorites including the Hot Brown, a filling concoction of breast of turkey on toast points that’s topped with Morney sauce, crisp bacon, diced tomatoes and cheddar cheese.
The wholesome food is a great match for the spirit cleansing Shaker Village experience.
For more information, phone 800-734-5611 or visit website shakervillageky.org. For more information on area attractions, phone 800-355-9192 or visit website harrodsburgky.com.