History + Restoration
Discover a Simple Shaker Heritage
The Pleasant Hill Shakers embraced a kinship with the land and with each other, forging a legacy that continues to inspire us today. Their gifts are simple—architectural marvels, breathtaking landscapes and lessons in community, ingenuity and sustainability. The Shakers were 19th century America’s largest and best-known communal society. Their movement began in New York shortly before the American Revolution, and by the 1840s, nearly 3,500 Shakers lived in communities from Maine to Kentucky. In 1805, a group of Shakers came to central Kentucky and established a village they named Pleasant Hill.
The Shakers chose a peaceful way of life. They were celibate, believed in equality of race and sex, and freedom from prejudice. A quest for simplicity and perfection is reflected in their fine designs and craftsmanship, and today the term Shaker-made is synonymous with excellence around the world. Although the population peaked at almost 500 in the 1820s, the community thrived well past the mid-19th century, acquiring more than 4,000 acres of farmland. However, after the 1860s, changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution signaled the community’s decline. Kentucky Shakers no longer exist and only one community is active in New England, yet their lasting influence is a legacy to all who visit Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
The History of The Shakers
On May 10, 1774, a barely seaworthy ship named the Mariah set sail from Liverpool, England for the New World. Three months later, nine dedicated but impoverished members of a religious sect called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing disembarked in the New York City harbor. They had fled persecution, reached the land of religious freedom and fulfilled the vision of their leader—a stocky woman they called Mother Ann.
Ann Lee grew up in industrial Manchester, England. She had been a child laborer in the textile mills, married and given birth to four children, all of whom died young. She was illiterate. As a young person, she turned her energies away from her wretched life toward searching for security after death. She joined a dissident sect who worshiped by giving themselves to being, quite literally, moved by the spirit of God. From these ecstatic, animated movements, they gained the title the “Shaking Quakers,” and then just “Shakers,” a name they ultimately used themselves.
Soon, Ann began to see visions, to hear Christ speak to her. Revelations convinced her that the only true road to salvation was celibacy and confession of sin. As a part of their continuous persecution, the Shakers were cast into prison. While there, Ann received a vision of Christ appearing to her in person. She told followers that Christ had made his first appearance following his resurrection to a woman, which “showed that his second coming would be as a woman.”
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was born, and Mother Ann became its leader. Scholars differ as to whether her followers believed she was the female reincarnation or whether she was a prophet predicting a second coming in female form. Mother Ann’s vision “that God had chosen people in America” brought them here. Their first year was a discouraging battle for survival. Yet by the fall of 1776, they had a permanent settlement or “gathering” in Niskeyuna, New York, outside Albany.
In May 1781, Mother Ann, her brother William and James Whittaker set out for New England on their first proselytizing mission. In 1784, Mother Ann died at age 48. Her followers took up the cause successfully and, in 1787, founded the New Lebanon Shaker Village, southeast of Albany. It became the mother colony, the final authority and the maker and dispenser of laws for all Shaker communities.
Ultimately, the Shakers founded 21 villages from Maine to Kentucky. New Lebanon was the largest with approximately 600 members; Union Village, Ohio was almost as large; Pleasant Hill was third with 500 members. From 1787 to the present, the total recorded membership according to figures from the Western Reserve Historical Society is 16,828. Only one community exists today with Shakers in residence. It is near Lewiston, Maine at Sabbathday Lake and has two remaining residents.
The History of Pleasant Hill
Three Shaker missionaries, John Meacham, Issachar Bates and Benjamin Seth Youngs, left Mount Lebanon, New York on New Year’s Day in 1805 and traveled on foot to Kentucky. In August of that year, they found three Kentuckians who were willing to listen to their testimony—Elisha Thomas, Samuel Banta and Henry Banta, who soon became the first Kentucky Shaker converts. Within a short time, Believers began moving to Elisha Thomas’ 140-acre Mercer County farm. In December 1806, 44 persons signed the first family covenant. Two years later, they moved to a nearby hilltop they named Pleasant Hill.
The Pleasant Hill Shakers were hardworking farmers, first or second generation descendants of pioneers who settled the early 1800s Kentucky River frontier. They were accustomed to overcoming hardships by using strong will, ingenuity and determination. The venture flourished and by 1823, there were 491 Shakers at Pleasant Hill with land holdings of approximately 4,500 acres. Over a 105-year span, the Shakers constructed more than 260 structures of all kinds, including a municipal water system, one of the earliest such systems in Kentucky.
As early as 1816, they were producing enough surpluses of brooms, coopers ware, preserves, packaged seeds and other products to begin regular trading trips to New Orleans via the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Shakers’ devotion to conservation, excellence and productivity led them to improve the quality of their livestock by importing bloodstock. They purchased a bull from England in conjunction with Henry Clay and owned one of America’s largest herds of registered Durham Shorthorn cattle. Pleasant Hill became a leading agricultural experimental station.
As the Civil War began, the society felt the tension of a border state where neighbors and families divided over the issues of secession and slavery. The Shakers believed in emancipation of the slaves, but as pacifists, they refused to bear arms. Their Federal neighbors could not understand the Shakers’ pacifist views. Secessionists were equally intolerant of the Shakers, who offered African-Americans full brotherhood in their community as early as 1811.
After the Civil War, the community’s population remained fairly stable at more than 300, and the economy somewhat improved. However, with a vacuum of leadership, by 1886 the community was $14,000 in debt, and membership was composed of the very young and very old. New converts were often widowed women with small children or freeloading men.
By 1910, Pleasant Hill had closed its doors as an active religious society. The 12 remaining members deeded their last 1,800 acres to a local merchant with the agreement he would care for them until their death. The last Shaker, Sister Mary Settles died in 1923. The land, buildings and furnishings passed into private hands, and Pleasant Hill became a small country town called “Shakertown.” In 1961, a private nonprofit organization, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, was founded to restore the historic property.
The Restoration Begins
After the Shakers were gone, the buildings and property passed into private hands. The once-vibrant community was now quiet, and the Shakers were nearly forgotten. The buildings took on new functions. The Trustees’ Office was operated as a restaurant. The Meeting House became the Shakertown Baptist Church. The Carpenters’ Shop served as a general store, and the Farm Deacon’s Shop was a gas station.
In early 1961, a groundswell of interest in saving these historic structures brought on the formation of an organization to acquire and restore them. That same year, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was formed as a nonprofit, educational corporation. Earl D. Wallace, a well-known Kentucky businessman, led the group. Members came from central Kentucky, as well as Louisville and Lexington. Mr. Wallace was elected chairman of the board of trustees, a position he held until his death in 1990.
James Lowry Cogar, the first curator of Colonial Williamsburg, came back in 1962 to his native state to become the first president of Shaker Village. Mr. Cogar was responsible for the innovative plan for adaptive use of historic buildings and excellence in restoration standards. He insisted upon the purchase of 2,250 acres of original Shaker land to act as a buffer against commercial encroachment.
When restoration began in 1966, it became apparent that no government agency or trust would provide long-term support and Shaker Village Pleasant Hill must be self-sufficient. Admission income also would not be enough to ensure the project’s survival. Dining, overnight lodging and craft sales were incorporated into the plan to diversify the property’s revenue streams.
Work began to bring the property back to its 19th century appearance. All utilities were buried, walks repaired or replaced, original paint colors discovered and duplicated. In 1965, U.S. Highway 68 was re-routed to bypass the village and, in 1968, the main village road was restored to its original appearance. The same year, a few exhibition buildings, lodging accommodations, the dining room and first crafts sales shop opened to the public.