‘Tis a gift to celebrate a simpler time
For one brief moment, as snowflakes fall upon pathways where Shakers strolled two centuries ago, it’s easy to believe time has stood still.
Though the Shakers who lived at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg and at South Union Shaker Village east of Auburn are gone, historic preservationists are dedicated to retaining the charm of the sites with their immaculately restored buildings.
Members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, called Shakers because of their movements during worship, were one of the most successful utopian communities in American history. Their lives of simplicity, celibacy and hard work live on, especially during this time of year.
“Christmas for the Shakers told of the holiday’s religious significance in a different way,” says Aaron Genton, collections manager at Pleasant Hill. “They emphasized the day for spiritual growth—a way of cleansing yourself from the physical. As time went on, the Shakers adopted more worldly traditions—caroling, trees, boxes for collecting money to give to the less fortunate, and even Santa Claus.”
At present-day Pleasant Hill, December programming includes special evening Candlelight Tours and Jingle Bell Shuttle Rides on a festive wagon that travels down a village road lined with holiday greens. Illuminated Evenings feature special musical performances, tours and programs. Campfires offer a chance to warm up and sip complimentary hot chocolate.
“We invite local choirs, choruses and instrumentalists to perform, including the Danville Children’s Choir,” says Amy Bugg, director of marketing and sales. “There’s letter writing to Santa, a high tea with Mrs. Claus and a hands-on workshop where participants can learn to make wreaths.”
Meals at the Trustees’ Table, a restaurant focused on seed-to-table foods, are made with an emphasis on what the Shakers would have had in their kitchens, says Bugg.
Shaker Village—the only National Historic Landmark where visitors can spend the night in the same rooms in which Shakers lived and worked—is postcard-pretty in winter. Nearby, the bare trees reveal the Kentucky River palisades, with their steep, scenic gorges and limestone outcroppings that stretch for miles.
South Union Shaker Village, Auburn
Holiday celebrations also are part of South Union Shaker Village, which at one time consisted of 250 structures.
“Winter is always a special season for us,” says Rebekah Brummett, South Union’s curator of community engagement. “During December, ‘To Grandmother’s House We Go’ is a special hands-on program where school children prepare a meal using kitchen equipment from 1917. Our ‘Christmas at Shakertown’ is known for its excellent antique market. It’s a different—and amazing—experience to be able to shop 19th-century items in a 19th-century building. And seeing the village all lit up is a wonderful winter sight.”
Christmas at Shakertown Holiday Market, with more than 30 regional antique vendors and artists, is December 2; a by-reservation preview party is the night before. Admission to the Market is a canned food item or donation for those in need. The Market and preview are held at Centre House, considered one of the finest Shaker buildings in existence.
According to Brummett, the three-and-a-half story Centre House was built in a sense of harmony. “The ideal was said to see past gender and color lines,” she says.
Preserving the uniqueness of this heritage is part of the mission of both South Union and Pleasant Hill. In 1840, approximately 6,000 Shakers lived in around 20 communal villages in New England, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. Only one—in Maine—remains today, its membership down to two.
Brummett says it’s important to tell the stories of all Shakers.
“It’s wonderful to highlight persons of prestige,” she says, “but what really sets South Union Shaker Village apart from other historic sites is we can tell the story of common, everyday Kentuckians and how they lived, including women and persons of color.”
Lee Blythe, who owns Federal Grove Bed & Breakfast in Auburn, describes South Union as a wonderful historic property.
“They’ve done a fantastic job of preservation and just recently acquired the 1854 Wash House—adding the ninth of the 10 surviving buildings to become part of South Union Shaker Village,” says Blythe, who gets many overnight guests and diners at his circa-1850 Georgian-style inn after they’ve visited the village, which doesn’t have dining or overnight accommodations.
Blythe’s father-in-law worked for 20 years at Pleasant Hill as a cooper, a skill he traveled to Appalachia to learn.
“So, I have a good tie-in with both Shaker villages,” he says. “It’s an interesting coincidence.”
JANE SIMON AMMESON is a food, lifestyle, and travel writer, James Beard Nominating Judge for the Great Lakes Region, photographer, and author of 11 books.
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