The Simple Gifts of Shaker Village
A quiet weekend retreat
The devout men and women who built Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill more than 200 years ago prided themselves on their work ethic. But yesterday's austerity is today's luxury. A quiet weekend here, two hours south of Cincinnati, is a simple gift, indeed.
Click ahead to find out more about Shakertown, as Kentucky locals call it, and to get tips on what to see, where to eat and where to stay.
Once a communal village with more than 500 deeply religious residents, Shaker Village (25 miles southwest of Lexington) now operates as a living-history site and nature retreat. Thirty-four brick and clapboard buildings house workshops, guest rooms, a restaurant and lovely gift stores.
Visitors can see craftspeople bend wood into oval boxes, spin yarn into fabric and weave straw into brooms, or watch soloists perform surprisingly peppy Shaker hymns. (The name Shaker actually refers to believers' spirited dancing.) Kids race to greet a storybook-perfect cast of farm animals behind pristine white fences, and in the warm-weather months, a horse-drawn wagon tour crunches along gravel paths.
Peace and quiet
Plenty peaceful during the day, Shaker Village becomes downright Zen in the late afternoon and evening. The lone whoosh of a car on US-68 barely disturbs the symphony of nightfall: birdsong, footsteps, honking geese and the content munching of a horse who has found a tasty patch of clover.
Shakers settled here in 1805. Convinced that hard work would lead to salvation, they industriously farmed, built furniture, shipped seeds and sold brooms, all the while espousing gender and racial equality.
Pictured: Bundles of straw await shaping into signature Shaker brooms.
Everything with a purpose
Everything visitors see today was carefully considered more than a century ago. Wooden pegs lined the walls so that no tool, hat or candle was ever out of reach. Oversize double boilers prevented huge batches of apple butter from scorching. And those upside-down hanging chairs? Helped keep ash and dust off the seat. In fact, the only thing the Shakers didn't seem to figure out was their survival: A doctrine of celibacy practically guaranteed the group's demise.
Overnight guests stay in the same buildings where Shakers worked and slept, supping on Kentucky corn pudding and tart lemon pie. The bedrooms and suites, though comfortable, reflect the essence of Shaker simplicity. Hand-woven rugs cover oak floors, and sunlight pours through rippled glass behind muslin curtains. What might seem barren in winter feels perfect in spring, a season for throwing open sash windows, breathing deeply and renewing the spirit.
Pictured: Guest rooms feature Shaker reproduction furniture and accessories (also sold at the village craft shops).
Planning your visit
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill If you don't stay overnight, give yourself a full day to explore the workshops, museum, craft shops and trails. The Dixie Belle paddle wheeler resumes seasonal, narrated cruises on the Kentucky River in late April. Special spring events include the annual sheep-shearing and the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass. A $15 fee covers walking tours and entrance to all buildings. Additional fees apply to horse-drawn tours and riverboat rides. (800) 734-5611; shakervillageky.org
For area information: Harrodsburg/Mercer County Tourist Commission (800) 355-9192; harrodsburgky.com
Pictured: Many Shaker Village buildings have two doors, so Shaker men and women -- who respected one another but believed in celibacy -- could enter separately.
More to do in the area
Kentucky Horse Park (pictured) In Lexington, a pretty complex of museums and stables celebrates the Bluegrass State's equine heritage. Activities include horseback, pony and carriage rides; several museums; films; and plenty of chances to meet the park's many horses face-to-face. Admission charged. (800) 678-8813; kyhorsepark.com
Old Fort Harrod State Park In Harrodsburg, a reconstructed log fort demonstrates the hardships and ingenuity of Kentucky's first settlers, whose graves predate the Declaration of Independence. A blacksmith shop opens in warm weather, and just outside the fort's walls, visitors can see the one-room cabin where Abraham Lincoln's parents wed. Admission charged. (859) 734-3314; parks.ky.gov
Where to eat
Trustees' Office Dining Room (pictured) For lunch and dinner, the candlelit Shaker Village restaurant serves tasty (if not exactly bargain-price) Kentucky standbys such as fried chicken, country ham and lemon pie. Breakfast is available February to December. (800) 734-5611; shakervillageky.org
Bella Notte In Lexington, fresh, contemporary Italian cuisine makes a nice change during a weekend visit to the area. The menu includes wood-fired pizzas, pastas and salads, and every meal begins with delicious, soft Tuscan bread to dip in herby olive oil. (859) 245-1789; bellalexington.com
Kentucky Fudge Company In Harrodsburg, the old Dedman's Pharmacy now houses an adorable chocolate shop, restaurant and soda counter, complete with original cherry cabinetry (877/892-3657).
Old Owl Tavern at the Beaumont Inn Fried catfish and creamy coleslaw make a nice lunch after visiting nearby Fort Harrod. (800) 352-3992; beaumontinn.com
Ramsey's This homey Lexington diner serves well-prepared, Southern-inspired meats and fish, with your choice of three sides. (mac 'n' cheese, apple fritters, fried green tomatoes and more.) Ramsey's is also a good place to try a traditional Kentucky hot brown—a cheese-smothered, open-face turkey and bacon sandwich. One of the four locations is on Old Harrodburg Road (US-68), a straight shot from Shaker Village. (859) 219-1626; ramseysdiners.com
Where to stay
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill The village's 70 rooms and suites, scattered through 13 village buildings, are modest but comfortable, with attractive private baths. From $85. (800) 734-5611; shakervillageky.org
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2010. Prices and other details can change; please check specifics before making travel plans.)