One Building at a Time

Preserving and Interpreting Pleasant Hill

Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is the largest National Historic Landmark in Kentucky with 34 original Shaker structures and 3,000 acres, but it took time and dedication to make it what it is today. 

After Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, KY, Inc. was formed in 1961, the task before the organization was massive.  The single purpose adopted by the original Board of Trustees was “to preserve the heritage of the Shakers and to promote an awareness on the part of the public of the historical significance of the Village of Pleasant Hill.”[1]  They thus began the process of reassembling Pleasant Hill, one property at a time. 

Earl Wallace, Betty Morris, Jim Thomas and James Cogar. Betty Morris was the first employee of the organization, and along with Cogar and Thomas, was instrumental in the early restoration project.

The buildings were in varying states of deterioration in the 1960s, so the first goal after acquisition was stabilization and preservation.  The initial estimate to preserve and restore Shaker Village as a whole was $2,000,000, which today would come to $17,827,483. This sent a bit of a shock wave through the new organization. Though private support was, and still is, instrumental in ensuring the success of the site, the board successfully applied for an Area Redevelopment Act loan in 1963 to start the initial restoration work.   

Earl Wallace and the board invited James Cogar, who had been the first curator at Colonial Williamsburg, to lead the restoration effort at Pleasant Hill.  The organization chose to restore the buildings to the 1840s to capture a moment in time for this community, and followed an “adaptive reuse” preservation model.  While building exteriors were being restored to the mid-19th century, some of the building interiors were being modified to accommodate overnight guests.  This model meant that Shaker Village could continue to operate with earned revenue, and sometimes the best way to preserve a structure is to use it!

One of Jim Thomas’s first responsibilities was to train local carpenters to make reproduction furniture to populate the buildings. Much of this furniture is still being used today throughout the site.

With only half of the buildings restored, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill officially opened to the public on April 15, 1968.  To tell the story of the Shakers in the 1840s, the organization employed the living history interpretive model in which interpreters, wearing period clothing, carried out tasks in order to set a scene of daily life in this community.  The rise in popularity of living history sites coincided with the social history movement of the 1960s and 1970s in which scholars were focusing more on the lived experiences of the past.  Social history sought to turn attention to the everyday experiences of people, and living history helped to answer this call in the public sector. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill opened in 1968 with all public staff, even servers in the restaurant, wearing period clothing.
Interpreter Dixie Huffman, interacts with visitors while demonstrating traditional cooking methods.

Today, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill continues to explore the everyday lives of the Shakers, but in different ways.  The past is stagnant and unchanging, history on the other hand is dynamic.  History, as an interpretation of the past, is always changing as we uncover new evidence and find new ways to tell the stories of the past.  


[1] Earl D. Wallace, A Review of the First Fifteen Years of Financing the Restoration of Pleasant Hill (KY: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, KY Inc., 1975-1976), 4.

Saving Shakertown

It takes a Village to save a Village.

Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

After the last Pleasant Hill Shaker passed away in 1923, the once vast Shaker community ceased to exist as a religious society. The historic buildings that once formed the foundation for this community found new uses with new owners. Shakertown, as it was known locally, became another stop along Highway 68, with gas stations, general stores, restaurants and hotels interspersed among farms with houses and barns.  

Robert Renfrew, Bob Houlihan, Earl Wallace and Hillery Boone inside The Trustees’ Office at the time of purchase.
The First Attempt to Save Shakertown

There were very clear and deliberate efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to see Pleasant Hill set aside as a historic site or state park. Individuals and organizations were working on many fronts to see this happen. Burwell Marshall had purchased quite a bit of land during this period under the name Pleasant Hill Realty Co., and eventually opened a museum in the Centre Family Dwelling. It appeared that almost everyone with an interest in this village during this period, wanted to see it set aside and saved, and wanted to help interpret Shaker history by doing so.

By the 1950’s; however, momentum to save the site had waned. Though there were still interested parties, the buildings were in worse shape than ever with many on the brink of collapse. 

The Renfrew Restaurant

By this time, the bulk of the original Shaker buildings were in the hands of just five individuals. The Gwinn brothers owned much of the West end of the Village, while Burwell Marshall retained ownership of the Centre and East portions. Robert and Bettye Renfrew purchased the Trustees’ Office in the 1950s to run a restaurant. 

According to one of the restaurant regulars, “the place had a lot of character. It was like something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner. It was a bring-your-own-bottle operation, and the food was wonderful. They just had a few things – a special eggplant casserole and fried chicken and old ham, but they’d never get it ready. Guests would sit out on the front steps and ‘kill a bottle of whiskey,’ and finally a member of the party would stroll back into the kitchen and casually ask, ‘How’re things coming, Mrs. Renfrew?’ The lady would look up at her interlocutor from her cup of tea, ‘but it wasn’t tea.’ Finally everybody would get fed, and then somebody would wind up the old Victrola in the corner and put on a record, and sometimes the waitress would join the dancing.”[1]

Raising Funds to Save Shakertown

Despite the charm of the buildings, it was apparent something drastic needed to be done. The effort to save Pleasant Hill was revived with the Shakertown Committee of the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation.  At a dinner in 1959 at the Shakertown Inn, the Renfrew’s restaurant, members of the Harrodsburg Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce and other community leaders excitedly announced the formation of a committee to “explore methods to restore some fifteen buildings at Pleasant Hill and to make the place a historical and tourist site.”[2] 

By 1962, the Shakertown Committee had secured options to be able to purchase many of the remaining Shaker buildings, but the combined figure of $362,000 was daunting! Earl Wallace, then chair of the board of Trustees, claimed “the first challenge to our enthusiasm came as the option on the present Trustees’ House was about to expire. We were faced with the payment of $62,500 which we did not have. The challenge came from Barry Bingham of Louisville who said that he would give $25,000 if we would raise the balance. The seriousness of our undertaking dawned on me and five other trustees when we had to endorse Shakertown’s note at a Lexington Bank to get the balance. I recall we said at that time that Shakertown would own one property if never another!”[3]

Fundraising efforts led by the non-profit Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Inc.

The Trustees’ Office was the first building purchased by the newly formed non-profit Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Inc., and this decision was very deliberate; they viewed this building as the key to the restoration effort. This building was unanimously considered “the vital first purchase in the Shakertown project.”[4]

Preserving the Past for the Future

After subsequent waves of preservation and fundraising, the Village currently sits on 3,000 acres of Shaker land, which includes a nature preserve, farm and a historic site with 34 original Shaker structures remaining. Today, the Trustees’ Office continues to serve as an integral part of the Shaker Village experience. With shops, a restaurant, and guest rooms, this space allows visitors to connect with this historic site in a personal way.

Our mission at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers. We do this by inviting the public to explore the Village, to stay the night and to take part in our daily programs that help interpret the Pleasant Hill story. We take the legacies of the Pleasant Hill Shakers to heart, and hope that these legacies continue to welcome visitors for years to come. 


[1] Thomas Parrish, Restoring Shakertown: The Struggle to Save the Historic Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 2.

[2] Ibid., 41-42.

[3] Earl D. Wallace, A Review of the First Fifteen Years of Financing the Restoration of Pleasant Hill (KY: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, KY Inc., 1975-1976), 4.

[4] Parrish, Restoring Shakertown, 47-18.

Navigating A Year of Change

Melissa Williams, Development Coordinator

Today marks one year since Shaker Village reopened to the public after a temporary, three-month closure. It’s been a year like no other for all of us and we wanted to take a moment to say thank you.  We are especially grateful for your continued support over the past 12 months as you have shopped, dined, stayed, explored and donated.

Shaker Village is a nonprofit organization and we maximize our income to preserve Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark and share the legacy of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. We continually reinvest generated revenue and charitable donations into the 34 historic buildings, the grounds, Preserve and education. Our balanced financial approach to historic preservation and programming has helped sustain the Village and create an engaging guest experience. When we closed in March 2020, we did so with limited financial resources on hand. It was a challenging time for the organization and our staff. Our most pressing concern was when we could reopen, what the Village experience would look like and if we could generate enough income to fund critical operations.

The historic turnpike was quiet while the Village was temporarily closed.

Adapting to the New Normal
Early on our team committed to telling the story of Pleasant Hill in new ways that could be accessed through our digital media platforms. As we reached out to our donors and guests with stories of the Shakers and the historic preservation work that continued during the closure, we received an outpouring of care and concern.

In the last 12 months, we have welcomed more donors to our community than ever before with gifts ranging from $5 to $10,000. Collectively our 1,200 donors generously contributed $1.8 million, which funded one third of our fiscal year operating expenses. Your support enabled Shaker Village to bring our staff back and reopen to the public on June 15th one year ago.

Masked up guests explored the Village and checked out the newly installed educational waystations.

Peaceful Through the Pandemic
Throughout the pandemic guests have remarked that Shaker Village has been a peaceful retreat in an otherwise uncertain world. With 3,000 acres to explore, there is ample room to practice social distancing. A record number of guests visited to hike the trails, stay in one of our 72 historic hotel rooms at The Inn, dine outdoors at The Trustees’ Table and enjoy Music on the Lawn and other socially distanced programming.

Recently a donor enclosed a note with her gift that read, “My new favorite place.”  As guests have returned, more and more have shared this sentiment and enrolled in our Annual Passholder program. The Passholder programs provides an avenue for guests to support Shaker Village but also offer great perks such as free admission. At present more than 1,300 individuals and families have expressed their commitment to Shaker Village by becoming a passholder. The revenue generated has enabled Shaker Village to rethink educational programming and introduce virtual workshops, innovation stations and more.

While Shaker Village has a physical presence in the land and historic buildings located here at Pleasant Hill, it has always been the people that make it a special place. That was true when the Shakers lived, worked and worshipped here. It was true in the 1950s and 1960s when private citizens organized and fundraised to preserve Pleasant Hill, and it remains true today. 

One year after reopening, Shaker Village is here because of your generous support. Thank you for donating. Thank you for visiting. And thank you for supporting this powerful place.

Funding Historic Preservation

Melissa Williams, Development Coordinator

Planning for Preservation

The master preservation plan for Shaker Village lays out short, mid and long-term goals to care for the property’s 34 historic buildings and 3,000-acre cultural landscape. From a fundraising perspective, this plan can seem a bit daunting when you add-up the amount of funds needed to achieve our goals! To help fund historic preservation projects, the Shaker Village Board of Trustees launched a comprehensive capital campaign in 2014. To date, Shaker Village has raised over $14 million towards the $25 million goal for historic preservation, to enhance visitor education and to strengthen the Shaker Village endowment.

Historic preservation can be a costly endeavor. That cost goes up the longer a structure sits and deteriorates without maintenance or regular upkeep. This makes sense considering we would expect the cost to rise as the extent of damage increases. It also highlights just how urgently some of our 34 historic buildings need attention. But what damages these buildings in the first place?

Exterior of West Lot Dwelling.
Old Stone Shop masonry before repairs.
Water at Work

We are fortunate in Kentucky to experience all 4 seasons, but this means that buildings are exposed to a wide range of temperatures, rain and snow. Over time the weather and environment cause damage to materials and surfaces, such as wood, stone and plaster. Water is a particular concern because wet materials can rot, mold and mildew; frozen water expands and can cause cracks or displace materials; and humidity introduces water to interior surfaces.

Floor board repair in the Meeting House.
Wear and Tear

Regular use of the buildings, which can have a positive impact on preserving them, can also have detrimental factors. The Shaker buildings are the most valuable items in our collection and most enduring testament to the Shaker legacy at Pleasant Hill. We could lock the buildings and ask our guests to observe them from a distance, but that would be an injustice and diminish the guest experience, which relies on the ability to move within the spaces where Shakers lived, worked and worshipped.

Because we use these buildings daily, doors and windows are opened and shut, floors and stairs are walked on and walls are touched. Over a long period of time, regular use will cause the buildings to show wear if they are not regularly maintained.

Across the property, the building conditions vary. The restoration work in the 1960s was just the beginning of our tasks as a nonprofit to preserve them. It is an ongoing project that will never quite be completely done.

The Old Stone Shop.
The North Lot Dwelling in 2012.
Working the Plan

Earlier this month I wrote about the full-scale preservation projects completed since 2016. Since completing this work, these buildings require regular maintenance to keep them in pristine condition.  In 2020 we established the Building Preservation and Maintenance Endowment to help fund this ongoing task and prevent these buildings from slipping into a state of deterioration in the future.

You’ve also read about several of the preservation projects in progress. To date we have fully-funded large-scale preservation projects for the 1817 East Family Dwelling, 1821 Ministry’s Workshop and 1811 Old Stone Shop, and we have partially-funded large-scale projects for the 1809 Farm Deacon’s Shop, 1835 East Family Wash House, 1824 Tanyard and 1813 Old Ministry’s Shop.  Fundraising for the four latter projects continues with a combined goal of $600,000.

Thirteen additional large-scale preservation projects are planned over the next five to ten years with a total cost of $3.7 million at today’s cost of materials. The scope of work ranges from $15,000 to $1.5 million, with most needing a new roof and repairs to windows, doors, woodwork and masonry. A small handful of these buildings (1847 Cooper’s Shop, 1816 North Lot Dwelling and 1850 West Lot Wash Lot) are of high concern because of the degree of their needs. The Cooper’s Shop, for instance, features exhibit space on the first floor and overnight lodging on the second, and is the highest fundraising priority because water is infiltrating the building through the siding, roof and windows causing significant damage and a cycle of constant maintenance.

Building Infrastructure

Over the years, SVPH has also been working to upgrade the infrastructure that serves the Village. This includes the heating and cooling systems and the water treatment plant. Theses systems were originally installed in the 1960s when the nonprofit organization formed. While some areas of these systems have been upgraded through the years, the majority has not.

For example, in 2017 the 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling and the 1820 Meeting House were switched to a geothermal heating and cooling system that is more sustainable, efficient and cost effective.  However, there are seven buildings in the West Family area that are heated and cooled by a boiler/chiller system which is generally described as being in “fair condition” overall. Components of this system were installed in 1966, and although the boilers and chiller have been replaced since that time, the ones currently in place are critically past their expected useful life. The cost of reconfiguring and replacing this complex system has a starting cost of $1.5 million.

Continuing the Work

When our nonprofit organization turns 60 later this year, we’re going to celebrate the commitment made in 1961 to preserve this powerful place. Over the years, you have told us how much Pleasant Hill means to you… all of those times you visited with your family, stayed overnight with loved ones, attended events and sang around the illuminated tree on a cold December night.

We won’t be daunted by the costs and challenges associated with preserving Pleasant Hill for future generations. Instead, we will be inspired by your personal stories and we will carry on with the important work we do here so that Pleasant Hill and the story of the Shakers will continue to inspire guests for many years to come.

Learn more about preservation at Shaker Village and how you can support these efforts.

Ever wonder what lies behind a closed door? Learn how our guided tours take you to rarely-seen areas of the Village.

If You Build It…

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the fifth part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.

In previous posts we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keep in mind when developing any new exhibit:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

Today we’re going to get our hands dirty, as we enter the fabrication phase of this exhibit!

Floor plans like this provide a quick touchpoint to cross reference the graphics, artifacts and built environment of an exhibit space.
A Little Help from Our Friends

Over the last several months the Shaker Village team has been researching and reviewing content, examining artifacts and working on the design of Local Economies, Global Impacts. This project was not undertaken alone. We’ve partnered with outside scholars and a nationally-recognized exhibit design firm. We’ve funded the project through private donations and a matching grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

It’s hokey, I know, but it really does take a village.

We’re now entering the all-important fabrication phase, where each component of the exhibition will be constructed and fit together. Strategic partnerships will be as important as ever.

Much like a major home interior renovation, constructing a museum exhibit takes special skillsets that not everyone will have. At Shaker Village however, we are fortunate to have skilled carpenters, like Terry Cowart, who can produce the cases, platforms and frames called for in our exhibit designs.

Team members from Shaker Village on a visit to the exhibit fabrication shop of Solid Light, in Louisville.

There are also many components in this exhibit’s design that our carpentry team would not be able to tackle. Printed graphics, metal work, interactive displays and large models are a few examples of items that we will outsource to professional exhibit fabricators. In Kentucky, we happen to be home to one of the best exhibit fabrication firms in the country, Solid Light. Items that will be too much for our team to bite off will be produced offsite and installed in tandem with the portions of the exhibition built in-house.

All About the Details

Have you ever heard the saying, measure twice, cut once? When you work on an exhibit design produced by one firm that will be built by two different teams working in two different locations, you measure at least half a dozen times before you can sleep at night!

Curator Becky Soules measures artifacts to ensure case designs will provide adequate space for display.

Not only do the different components need to fit together, but the location of heating vents and electrical outlets, and the swing direction of every door must be accounted for in the final product.

For the past two weeks, and for the next two weeks, our teams have been meeting to review details, compare notes, and spend some time together in each of the spaces where exhibits are to be installed. Open communication and clear guidance are keys to making sure the pieces fit together when they are finally placed in the 1845 East Family Brethren’s Shop and 1855 East Family Sisters’ Shop.

Case “schedules” are provided as a reference for fabricators, ensuring each team member has the correct number and dimensions of “typical” design elements.
Making Sawdust
Lumber orders for “typical” elements are arriving and being pre-cut for use in the exhibit.

Some details of “atypical” elements in the exhibit are still being massaged out, but construction can begin in earnest on many of the “typical” elements. These include artifact stands and platforms.

Materials that can be ordered are on the way or already onsite. We all love the process and understand the importance of each step along the way. However, in the words of Terry Cowart: “It feels good to finally start making some sawdust on this project.”

Next Month: We’ll continue our journey through the fabrication of Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.