Harrodsburg, Kentucky does more than preserve this National Historic Landmark in its borders, it breathes life into it.
By Hope S. Philbrick
When invited to tour the Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, as part of a trip through Kentucky Bourbon Country, It didn’t seem to fit the theme. I decided to make an exception and included it in the itinerary anyway.
I’m glad I did.
That’s not to say there weren’t some last-minute reservations and secret negotiations. On the morning we were scheduled to visit the Shaker Village, as my husband Dean and I drove from Bardstown to Harrodsburg, we passed the Wild Turkey distillery. Dean immediately launched into not-so-subtle lobbying. “Of course you have to do your research,” he said. “I won’t stand in the way of that. But I hope we can stop at Wild Turkey today.”
By the time we sat down to lunch in the Trustees’ Office Dining Room, we had the private agreement that we’d eat, tour and dash.
That never happened.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was inhabited by Shakers until 1910 and preserves 34 original buildings and 3,000 acres of land. The Shakers developed the longest-lasting communal society (they died out; unwavering commitment to celibacy will do that).
The place is picturesque in a way that particularly suits our design sensibilities (we have some Shaker-style furniture). But the people working here really made us dig the place. Our hosts and tour guides proved to be skilled story tellers who quickly made us realize that everything we thought we knew about the Shakers (“they’re like the Amish”) was absolutely wrong.
Their compelling stories positioned the Shakers as progressives during their period in history, not as cultish kooks. (For example: It seems far from crazy for a pre-Civil War-era widow with several children and no career prospects beyond Prostitution to join a community where men and women are treated as equals, where she’ll learn or apply a trade, have ready access to abundant food as well as the most modern medical care, and share household chores and childcare with ‘brothers and sisters.’) On average, Shakers lived 20 years longer than their contemporaries.
We learned a lot but still had many more questions since we only had time to glance at most exhibits and breeze past reenactors before we had to leave. We wished we’d had more time in the Village.
Before we left, Dean bought all of his coworkers’ souvenirs at one of the gift shops. (Hand-dipped candles. This is really saying something; gifts are not his forte.) The gift shops feature traditional Shaker goods made on site as well as works by regional artisans. It’s hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship and distinctive style of Shaker products, including brooms that stand on their bristles, tiny boxes that can hold the weight of a man, intricate weavings, practical shelves, simple yet elegant furniture and more.
“I didn’t want to go there,” Dean admitted in the car (as if it hadn’t been made clear that morning). “But it was so interesting!”
Months later, he says visiting Shaker Village was a trip highlight. He’ll still talk about it to nearly anyone who’ll listen. And he’s done some online research (discovering this report by Charles Dickens.)
“I really want to go back there,” he keeps reminding me. “Next time, let’s stay overnight.”
That’s the plan. And it may be the only place in the nation where you can stay in original Shaker buildings rather than recreations. (Rates at the on-site 73-room hotel range $100 to $165 a night.)
The big lesson here: Toss an unusual choice into your next travel itinerary. You just might like it.
Odds of Encountering Children: High, especially during summer months. Grownups might most enjoy visiting during fall and winter months (and especially on weekdays).
More to do in Harrodsburg…
Take a self-guided walking or driving tour of Harrodsburg and Mercer County. Founded in 1774, Harrodsburg is Kentucky’s oldest city and boasts four National Register Historic Districts. Pick up a guide at the Visitors Center for information about 85 key stops, including where to find them.
Visit Olde Towne Park.
Stop by the Kentucky Fudge Company / Dedman Drugstore for a specialty coffee, candy or pastry, ice cream treat or snack. This early American drug store (circa 1865) still has its original soda fountain. Whether or not the vibe feels nostalgic to you, time spent here is a pleasant memory-making respite.
Tour Old Fort Harrod State Park to appreciate an early era of Harrodsburg history.
— Photos © HSP Media LLC