Finding Utopia

Dallas Morning News

It’s 10am and I’m strolling a dirt road in the Kentucky countryside with a chorus of chatty robins to keep me company. Sunlight is percolating through the trees, painting golden stripes on tall heritage houses that couldn’t be more rustically beautiful if they tried. Welcome to the perfect world – or at least the 19th-century idea of it.

 

The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill historic site uses costumed interpreters and antique exhibits to illuminate a community that, between 1805 and 1910, tried hard to chart the ideal way of life. One of around 20 similar Shaker religious settlements and hundreds of other US experimental utopias that rose and fell around the 1800s, this one – peaking at 491 members in 1823 – was among the most successful.

 

Since I’m here overnight – some of the three-dozen preserved buildings now have cozy guest rooms – I’ve decided to figure out what made these Kentucky Shakers tick. And perhaps pick-up some handy lessons for improving my own less-then-perfect life.

 

Hard work, it seems, is key. The simple-living Shakers rose at 5am (except on Sundays) and toiled for hours on end. For women – wearing uniform ankle-length dresses – that meant communal laundry, food preparing and broom-making, according to the two costumed demonstrators I find weaving some witchy brooms in one building.

 

The men – in standard pants and waistcoats – also labored long and hard, crafting handsome chairs and cabinets or working in the 3,000 acres of farmland (now striped with hiking trails) that still surround the bucolic site. Known for clever cattle breeding and seed innovations, they were among Kentucky’s savviest agricultural businessmen.

 

Today, the village’s heritage farm – including a cavernous barn with elaborately crosshatched ceiling beams – showcases this pastoral expertise, luring the majority of family visitors with its pigs, goats and beady-eyed chickens. As a horse and cart trundles past (rides available), I follow a farm cat into the barn for a sheep-sheering display.

 

The twinkle-eyed, dungaree-wearing demonstrator buzz-cuts his hapless ovine in minutes. But this isn’t quite how the Shakers used to do it. During his commentary, the veteran shearer tells us they did the same job just as fast with non-electrical sheers – and there would have been hundreds of sheep to tackle at a time.

 

Perspiring at the thought of just how much work the perfect life entails, I escape to the nearby Centre Family Dwelling, one of several communal houses built by the villagers. A graceful gray stone building with four floors, its high-ceilinged rooms have exhibits on Shaker living arrangements. This, it seems, is where their ideal world came unstuck.

 

Like other Shaker settlements, residents were required to sleep in single-sex dorms and practice celibacy – elders are said to have spread powder on floors between the rooms and checked for footprints in the morning. For many, the keen 19th-century appeal of a full belly and a safe home faded when they realized potential partners were prohibited.

 

Not that enjoyment was completely banished. Sundays were for getting your Shaker thang on – as I discover when a costumed interpreter singing a lilting song to passers-by outside lures me across the road to the Meeting Hall.

 

Officially named the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, members of the movement became widely known as Shakers when outsiders saw them trembling ecstatically at church services. Over time, this shaking was refined into choreographed movements – each matching specific devotional songs – that was closer to dancing.

 

In the Meeting House’s large, wood-floored hall, I perch on a bench by the wall as the honey-voiced guide performs several chants along with their accompanying bows, arm sweeps and heavenward glances. It’s mesmerizing. I make a mental note that any utopia I decide to live in must include a song and dance component.

 

But even though the Shakers pioneered far more important ideas – including gender and racial equality, farming technologies and an eco-hugging reverence for nature (the tree of life is a big symbol for them) it wasn’t enough to keep this community alive. Internal politics – and that unpopular celibacy policy – slowly eroded membership.

 

A handful of residents remained at Pleasant Hill in the early 1900s – while most of the country’s other Shaker villages had long-since shuttered. Quietly disbanded in 1910 before its faded buildings were revived as a nonprofit historic attraction from 1961 onwards, it now stands as a fascinating evocation of one era’s quest for heaven on earth.

 

With the light fading and a faint mist encircling the trees, dinner is calling. If I’ve learned anything from my day in utopia, it’s that hedonism is hard to surrender. Which is why my meal at the village’s Trustees’ Table restaurant (pan-fried catfish recommended) includes a second slice of pie – a prerequisite for my own perfect world.

 

If you go:

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is in Harrodsburg, 26 miles southwest of Lexington. Entry costs US$10 for adults and US$5 for ages 6 to 12 (under-5s are free). Onsite accommodation costs from US$110 per night. Information: www.shakervillageky.org.

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