Our main reason for coming to the Harrodsburg area of Kentucky was to visit the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill. After first stumbling on the Amana Colony in Iowa, we have become interested in the new awakening of religious movements in the USA during the 19th century. These groups sought to find an alternative to the more standard forms of believe. The Shaker movement was one of these. They had established a number of communities in the northeast, with the head of the movement located in Lebanon, New York.
As settlers moved into the wilderness of Kentucky, it was decided to send missionaries along with the settlers. So it was that a small band of missionaries moved west to Kentucky and gaining some converts to their beliefs, they settled north of Harrodsburg in an area known as Pleasant Hill.
The Shakers believed that they were living in the “millennium”, which meant heaven on earth. They also believed that God was both father and mother to them all. As a result, they adhered to the concept of celibacy, since all men and women were brothers and sisters. They strived to be worthy in the eyes of God and celibacy was an important part of that process.
They started as poor farmers and over the over hundred years of existence at Pleasant hill, their wealth and views of life changed with the times to a limited extent. During the hundred years they lived at Pleasant Hill, no children were born to the members. However, married converts and their children were taken into the community along with orphans and indentured children. After the age of sixteen, all children were free to leave the community if they chose. All that remained must adhere to the Shakers’ beliefs.
The meeting hall is a unique structure that not only reflected the ingenuity of the builders of the inverted truss design, but the reason such a structure was necessary. Since it had no pillars, it allowed the members at weekly services to express themselves physically. They often danced, jumped up and down or rolled on the floor as the spirit of God moved them. At the peak of nearly 500 members, this required a lot of room to move around. There were also no fixed pews or other seating in the meeting hall, so that the floor space could remain open. This is where the term Shaker comes from.
As the Civil War approached, they were near their peak of prosperity and membership. They all lived in common housing buildings with men sleeping on one side of the building and women on the other side. Here were special areas for children that were raised by the community as a whole. At the peak, there were five community housing units. Converts with children had to agree to allow the community to raise the children and also that they remain celibate for the rest of their lives in the community.
The Civil War proved to be a watershed event for the community. The bloodiest battle of the war fought in Kentucky took place just a short distance to the south at Perrysville. Both armies passed thru the Shaker community. While they generally were not harmed by the armies, their charity efforts nearly completely depleted their resources. Perhaps more important, the horror of this conflict shook some of their beliefs of living in a “millennium” environment. Like other religious commune societies, they also suffered from groups of people taking advantage of their beliefs by living in the community but not being part of the productive process. In Pleasant Hill, they were often called “Winter Shakers”. They converted to the faith in early winter when there was little work to do and enjoy the abundance of the society and then leave in the spring when the work commenced in earnest.
While they continued for another forty years after the war, it was a steady decline with a drop off in converts and a deteriorating faith in their principles.
By 1910, there were only 12 members left. This group sold the land and buildings to a local business man with the provisions that they could live there until they died. The last member died in 1923, after the purchaser of the property died. His heirs honored the agreement and after the last member passed sold the land and buildings.
The community has been restored and with the docents providing lively interpretations of life in the community, it is a very worthwhile experience.