by Ernest J. Yanarella
One of the cultural landmarks of central Kentucky is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Shaker Village is operated by a non-profit, educational corporation and directed by a board of prominent citizens, business people, and philanthropists. As a historic museum, Shakertown comprises some 34 original 19th-century buildings and 2,800 acres of farmland supported by income generated from its thousands of visitors, its sales of replicas of Shaker products, and generous private gifts and contributions.
Spearheaded by Earl D. Wallace, a well-known Kentucky businessman, a group of historic preservationists formed an organization in 1961 to purchase and restore the land and buildings that had deteriorated since the 1920s, when the site of this original Shaker community was sold and commercialized. From 1966 to 1968, restoration of the village took place as modern utilities were buried underground, gravel roads and walkways were reconstructed, old workshops, dining halls, and lodgings were refurbished, and the overall village layout and surrounding farmland was brought back to its nineteenth century appearance. In addition to cultural events, dining, overnight lodging and craft sales were offered to attract tourists to this slice of Kentucky—and Shaker—history.
Today, Shakertown at Pleasant Hill is a cultural treasure of the past that is dying. To the casual observer or infrequent visitor, it strikes one as a marvelous celebration of a bygone people and a continuing testimony to the vision of Earl Wallace, who spearheaded its restoration in the 1960s. Still, the steady drop in attendance, compounded by the sameness and lack of vibrancy of its presentation of the former Shaker community, hints at deeper troubles. As this Shaker village proceeds further into the new century, sober assessment of its role in the dawning millennium seems imperative.
That Shakertown is in crisis should not obscure the many positive elements it retains from its purchase and reconstruction thirty years ago. Poised on a rolling hill above the palisades of the Kentucky River near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, this rebuilt site stands out amidst the rural farmland surrounding it as a ghost of yesteryear and points to spiritual, communal, and ecological values that beckon us to reconsider the frenetic pace of everyday life in our techno-corporate and increasingly urban society. Its sumptuous cuisine and well-made crafts hearken to an earlier era where the sensuousness of hearty food and the adherence to high craft standards cast a critical and negative light on fast food lifestyles and our industry's conformity to mass standards for a mass consumer market.
Yet the Shakertown experience as a window to a less hurried, but communal life of richness and sharing speaks less and less with a loud and insistent voice to the problems we confront or to the meaning we seek beyond the buzz and boom of our everyday existence. We need a sense of the presence of the past, but this museum village seems almost frozen in a past—a past increasingly mute to our everyday concerns.
Reinventing Shakertown: New Themes for Bridging the Next Century
Could it be that the rethinking and reinvention of Shakertown through our cultural imagination require nothing less than carving a new grounding image, a new function, and a new manner of demonstrating its value as a cultural resource? Simply put, does not the renewal of Shakertown necessitate forging a new model of a usable past better aligned to the new issues, developing problems, and unfolding agenda of city and countryside alike in this new time and old place? If we reflect upon the various elements of the dis-ease of our times, the continuing relevance of the Shakers to our emerging future is not hard to recognize. These include:
Shaker Responses to the Kentucky Farm Crisis
The Shakers were a resourceful and inventive community. The products of their efficient use of natural resources and their embrace of laborsaving technology are apparent even to the first-time visitor. That they might speak to us about our emergent condition by pointing the way to a future of rural promise beyond the tobacco wars is not self-evident. So we might ask: Could not some of the many acres of rich farmland comprising Pleasant Hill be given over to agricultural experimentation by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and groups like the Community Farm Alliance as a challenge to discover new uses of agricultural land for small Kentucky farmers beyond tobacco? Might these institutions and organizations not be put in competition to find the best and most viable agricultural alternatives and the most balanced ways to honor the Shaker farming legacy in a new era where making peace with the earth and finding nonexploitative uses for technology are pressing concerns?
Shaker Perspectives on the Global Population Explosion
As a utopian religious community, Shakertown may still have much to teach us about a key pedagogical function of utopias: the education of the senses and the education of desire. Surely their practice of sexual renunciation strikes our late modern sensibilities as hopelessly antiquarian and ultimately self-liquidating. As it was. Such sexual abstinence also points to a very truncated and limiting way of expressing their humanity and educating their instincts. On the other hand, the Shakers' patient discipline of their bodies and interpersonal relationships was inextricably connected with other, more emotional and aesthetic aspects of their lives. Whether the good food prepared to satisfy the hearty appetites built up by physical labor, or the whirling, circle dances featured in their worship services or the profound fascination they exhibited toward animal husbandry, the Shakers found ways to channel their sublimated sexual energies into creative, symbolic, and productive practices heightening their senses and enriching their collective lives.
What can we take from these strange and wonderful people about desire and the human senses at the millennium that enlarges our experiences of self and others and responds to the needs of a planet edging to six, eight, even ten billion inhabitants? Surely, if the carrying capacity of the earth is not to be overwhelmed by such an unbearable level of environmental demand, the Shaker example of the disciplining of the sexual instinct may have limited import in an age of increasingly safe and effective contraceptive means.
Shaker Contributions to the Dialogue on Simple Living and Sustainable Development
The Shakers' lifestyle also prefigures a way of dwelling in the land and living with others in community convergent with the voluntary simplicity movement. Living a simple existence where basic human needs are satisfied and nature's boundaries and finite resources are shepherded is the basis of a powerful movement subverting the often profligate consumer lifestyles and habits in which so many of us feel trapped. Shaker living demonstrated to their contemporaries how rich and rewarding a communal life of hard work, Christian fellowship, and social and economic simplicity could be. The pull of that way of life remains strong in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, it poses fundamental lessons of relevance and urgency in an increasingly crowded world calling not only for the forging of a program of sustainable development for the nations of the Southern Hemisphere, but for the greening of the North as well.
Shaker Lessons on God and the Sacred
As a devoutly religious people, the Shakers provide another element of a usable past in their gender-inclusive image of God. For the Shakers, the towering influence and profound message of their founder, Mother Ann Lee, encouraged them to imagine a Godhead who was dual in nature, combining male and female components. A living legacy anchored in part in Shaker theology and doctrine opens up a spiritual and cultural conversation with the contemporary feminist movement about the idea of a God for all of us, a God of and beyond gender. Again, the precise framing of this controversial conception, as some theologians have suggested, may reflect the hidebound nature of the circumstances in which it was developed. But the progressive nature of this insight in the context of prevailing Christian doctrine and controversies in mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations over sexism and God talk remains powerful and noteworthy.
While the Shakers clearly do not have the last word in debates regarding efforts to overcome sexist language in liturgies and the written Word, they certainly offer a valuable starting point for feminist theologians in carrying the women's revolution into religious organizations and doctrines in order to purge the sacred of its longstanding sexist biases. For beneath and beyond the stifling implications of their renunciation of sex and their rigid segregation of women and men were the shaping influence of their woman founder and a parallel structure of organization placing brother and sisters, elders and eldresses, on relatively equal footing.
The Shaker Nexus Between City and Countryside
The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill stood at the juncture of trade and commerce between the growing city of Lexington and small towns like Harrodsburg. Its economic character as a juncture point suggests that while its religious doctrine encouraged its isolation from the secular temptations of the big city and the confinements of the small town, its post-millennial future may best be found in reconnecting its cultural and intellectual endowments to the those of the city through state-of-the-art information and communications technologies.
Imagine a city museum of Lexington united to Shakertown through live television cameras and vice versa so that in novel and instructional ways the resources of each could be shared and serve to mutually educate visitors to the place of each in the historical development of the other. Imagine Shaker singing and dance performances being televised to Lexington and live performances of the Lexington Philharmonic or Children's Theatre beamed to Shakertown or outlying rural communities. Imagine how these experiences of mutual cultural enrichment might become a model for linking city, rural communities, and countryside in other places around the Commonwealth in a manner that simultaneously undercuts prevailing cultural stereotypes and expands the appreciation of local and regional cultures and folkways. If we could find creative roles for academia to mediate these programs, at least some of the anti-intellectual attitudes hobbling greater understanding and tolerance in the Commonwealth might be overcome.
Shakertown Between Local Economy and Global Economic Restructuring
Despite thriving trade and commerce in the region, the Shaker community struggled to remain self-sufficient on its own terms. The agricultural basis of its local economic foundations provided most of the necessities of the community. The Shaker's practicality not only made them receptive to inventing many laborsaving implements but gave them a keen sense of the economic advantages of converting raw materials into value-added products like Shaker seeds, jams and jellies, and pharmaceuticals.
In some respects, Shakertown was a precursor to the kind of sustainable communities that scholars and policymakers, citizen action groups and ecological organizations have striven to realize as a counterpoise to pressures and forces advancing the integration and subordination of locales and regions into a tightly-structured, hierarchical global economy. It is instructive that today's Shaker museum village has largely broken from these self-sufficient practices. As one example, the Shaker brooms sold in its craft shop, while made by volunteer senior citizens, is a testimony to globalization processes affecting its local industry: the straw is imported from Mexico, the wood handles from Thailand, and the hemp from the Fiji Islands. If these globalizing tendencies are not to overwhelm efforts to promote local and regional economic sustainability and if this Shakertown community is to honor its economic heritage as a model to the future, its administration will need to find ways of restoring the village to its local and regional setting and utilizing its own resources for its craft and other products.
The Shakertown Inhabitation in Regional Geology and Ecology
Pleasant Hill is not only the site of the Shaker Village. It is part of a wider geological and biological region that has undergone slow change and transformation. The many layers of rock comprising the Kentucky River palisades reminds us of the long, but palpable mutations occurring over the sweep of geological time. These subtle changes need to be structured into the presentation of Shakertown. We cannot know what natural and human-made forces shaped this area without appreciating the slow, but inexorable gathering up, layering, and remolding of the land we recognize today as Pleasant Hill. Could we not imagine geological studies and tours offered to travelers curious about the Shakers’ inhabitation of the region and its natural resources—studies and tours that marry the religious devotion of the Shakers to the land with the spiritual ecology of the region’s ecology? Would this hybrid intellectual venture not say something about the finite moment of the Shakers’ experiment and the eternal (by human, not cosmological, standards) clockwork of nature? Might we not find ourselves in the presence of the nexus that combines and infuses the evanescent and the A/almighty?
A Post-millennial Vision of Shakertown: From Museum Village to Regional Museum and Local-Global Chautauqua
When the last Shaker believer dies (and she may already have done so), Shaker faith and experience need not be consigned to the dustbin of history or simply housed in buildings and displays that point only to a past that is no more. Far from being silent to the unfulfilled needs and emergent desires increasingly populating the Bluegrass, Kentucky, America, and the world, the Shaker example and spirit speak across the millennial divide in ways that should—and could—be a lightning rod for public interest, cultural attraction, and economic value. Simply put, Shakertown must not succumb to the passage of time and the grip of a suffocating tradition and lifeless legacy. It can be renovated and refurbished so that it will stand as a beacon of hope and a school of instruction for the next century and to new generations of citizens of the Commonwealth and beyond.
Critical to this rebuilding process is the formidable task of carrying the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill into the New Millennium. These activities would be organized around transforming Shakertown from its present museum village into what Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford called a regional museum or civic gallery. The operative words are 'regional' and 'civic.' The goal of this renovation would be to convert Shakertown into a cultural magnet that gathers together the social, economic, and geographic facets and dimensions of the region of which it is a vital part. Its civic purpose lies in connecting the ideas and perspectives opened up by Shaker experience and legacy with issues and themes reverberating through our emerging post-millennial culture and politics. Together, these elements can transform Shaker's history into a usable past for present and future generations along lines outlined earlier.
The transition to a regional museum or civic gallery will no doubt take time, money, and an enlarged and forward-looking vista on the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Surely, the original idea of Earl Wallace—i.e., to use the facility as a conference center—has proved its mettle. That function should not only be retained; it should be expanded. One strong possibility convergent with its transformation into a regional museum/civic gallery is to expand the conference center framework into a local-regional-global chautauqua. Drawing upon the success of the town of Chautauqua in New York State, a renewed Shakertown might seek to find its greater economic potential and financial viability in striving to become the southern Chautauqua. Without destroying the scenic beauty of its immediate environs, consideration might be given to gradually adding additional structures to house and feed many more conference attendees throughout the year. Naturally, such additional construction would need to be tasteful and keeping with the architectural style and criteria dictated by the present configuration of buildings.
In conclusion, whatever the merits of holding onto the Shaker experience in its pastness, a future insensitive to the ways that that legacy continues to speak to us and beckon our attention will only close us off to the spiritual example and robust practices that the Shaker community represented. With the beginning of a new millennium, it is time to shape the contours of a new identity and fashion new and viable roles for Shakertown in keeping with the inchoate needs of the twenty-first century limned in the themes and perspectives above. In so doing, past, present, and future generations will be able to honor its traditions by joining in a new and expanding circle dance of love, reverence, and gift-giving “'till by turning, turning we come round right.”
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