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.

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.

Preserving Shaker Village One Repair at a Time

Shelby Jones, Director of Communications

May is recognized nationally as Preservation Month, and has been celebrated in some form since 1973 with the National Trust for Historic Preservation leading the charge. This special month allows us to promote historic places along with heritage tourism. It also lets us shine the spotlight on the people who perform the hands-on work of repairing and caring for historic sites like Shaker Village.

Terry Cowart is Shaker Village’s Carpenter, and an expert in historic restoration. His dedication and love for honoring the Shaker legacy is apparent in every project he works on. In recognition of Preservation Month, we asked Cowart a few questions about his work and the importance of preservation.

Tell us about your background, have you always been a woodworker? Did you always want to do this as a career

I’ve been involved with woodworking all of my life, and professionally since 1981. I am more of what’s referred to as an architectural woodworker in lieu of a carpenter. I’ve met many carpenters that I couldn’t hold a candle to. My partner here in the woodshop, Robert Brown, is one such carpenter who recently returned to Shaker Village.

My background is more centered around custom cabinetry, architectural millwork and moldings. My father was a cabinet maker and his father before him. It was always a given that this is the field I would pursue since when I wasn’t at school as a child you could find me at my father’s woodshop. I do truly love it.

When you’re preparing to work on a project involving a historic building how do you prepare? Is there research involved? What departments or teams at Shaker Village do you collaborate with?

Generally, we access as many historical and architectural plans and details that we have on file such as the Historic American Building Survey plans. We review any particular area or building to assess the profiles, species and method of joinery, and any damage or decay that may have affected the site. Usually, we try to use existing or reclaimed original material that we store here at the Village. This involves species identification and sometimes requires outsourcing other reclaimed materials.

Our maintenance team, lead by Maintenance Foreman Mike Brown, and paint department that includes Mike Worthington and Bobby Dixon are critical to most projects. Many of our restorations involve plumbing, electrical, HVAC and the all-important old school quality paint finishes Mike and Bobby provide. We also collaborate with the programming team in all phases of design, production, finish and installation. It really is a group effort here at Shaker Village.   

Centre Family Dwelling during a large scale renovation project. Cowart used Shaker methods of construction to assist in the project.

What are some of the challenges of working on historic spaces?

One important aspect I have learned in historical preservation work is identifying what is original construction, so that we can duplicate it to the best of our ability. The Shakers left a challenging and exacting act to follow. I am constantly humbled at the excellence and quality of even the most unseen areas of joinery. I count it as an honor to come behind to repair or duplicate their work.

What surprises or inspires you about the craftsmanship of the Shakers?

I am constantly inspired and awed at examples of Shaker woodworking. Their pursuit of excellence and purity is evident at every turn. What they were able to achieve is a direct reflection of these pursuits through their faith.

Are there key differences between the tools that the Shakers used to build structures versus the modern tools you have at your disposal? How much faster do you think you can complete a project compared to the time it took the Shakers to do the same thing?

We use many of the same tools today, however; a lot of today’s tools are battery, electric or compressed air driven, but their functions are much the same. I had a recent discussion with my colleague, Robert Brown, about how the Shakers achieved joinery with the tools they had in the same or even less time it requires us to achieve the same results.

The on-site woodhouse is a busy place with a constant flow of projects.

What’s your favorite historic project that you’ve worked on?

The preservation and rehabilitation of the Centre Family Dwelling and Meeting House were my indoctrination to the Shaker methods of construction. I was hooked from the beginning and am proud of my efforts there.

A close second, is the window sash, component repair and replacement at the East Family Dwelling. We did indeed use modern tooling to replicate  the window sashes in this building. They are true divided light six over six’s and nine over nine’s, with mortised and tenoned through rails and center stiles with wooden peg joinery.

Window sashes made by Cowart for the East Family Dwelling.

Is there an upcoming project you’re looking forward to working on next?

 In addition to other roles, I do a good bit of design and production on exhibit platforms and display cases for the newly rehabbed areas of different buildings. We are currently planning and staging this type of project for the East Family Brethren’s Shop and the East Family Sister’s Shop. I am able to employ what design or engineering skills I can muster to revise and alter the architectural plans we have on Auto CAD. I have previous experience in the digital design world, so this is a most handy skill to employ here. I enjoy handling large scale projects like this and I’m looking forward to it.

If there’s one thing you’d want someone to know about working on historic projects what would it be?

I have found that if you just give yourself over to the project, pursue excellence and purity at every turn, and do everything to the best of your ability, this place rewards you with the most job satisfaction I have known. It’s priceless really.

To learn more about historic preservation projects at Shaker Village visit our website. Additionally, you can learn how to support these projects to continue the legacy of the Pleasant Hill Shakers.

Sharing the Archives, One Bite at a Time

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“I visited here in 1993 and remember seeing an interesting clothes press. Where is that now, and can I see it again?”

“These journal excerpts are fascinating! Can we read the whole thing?”

“Do you have any other examples of Pleasant Hill oval boxes I could look at?”

“Can anyone go poke around in your archives, or only researchers?”

“Where’d all the stuff go that used to be in this building?”

Shaker artifacts are housed in protected storage.

As historical interpreters working with the public, my colleagues and I often receive questions about our artifact collections. You may already know that we’ve had to shuffle many of our artifacts due to recent preservation work, including in the Centre Family Dwelling. What you may not know is that our artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in our collections!

So, why don’t we have all of this great Shaker “stuff” out for everyone to see all of the time? It’s not because we don’t love our visitors (we do) or want you to see them (we do). First, space is always at a premium, and a room packed with furniture doesn’t make the best exhibit. Second, and more importantly, many of our artifacts are fragile — for their conservation, we need to limit how often they are handled, exposed to sunlight and taken out of controlled storage.

Large items like furniture are carefully organized and archived.

“How can I see the artifacts if they aren’t on display?” I’m glad you asked! With grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the help of the internet, the team here at Pleasant Hill are developing a means of digital access to our collections. Anyone with an internet connection can search or browse our documents, artifacts and photographs, regardless of who or where they are. This eliminates the risk of damaging any of the objects. Sounds like a win-win, right?

In order for all of the information to be documented someone (…me) has to:

  • Sift through existing digital records with an editorial eye checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.
  • Find, or create, and enter in missing information such as images or dimensions.
  • Start chipping away at creating records for items that have never been digitized.

With approximately 4,700 object records in our database alone, it’s an elephant-sized task! You know what they say about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

From now until the end of the year, this blog series will go behind the scenes of this project, and tell the stories of some of the objects you’ll see in our database. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you along the way!

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was awarded a CARES grant through The National Endowment for the Humanities in June 2020. Funding from this grant award supported two activities to enhance digital humanities initiatives at SVPH, including Laura Webb’s work to review our collection records and prepare them for publishing in a public digital database.

The Campaign for Shaker Village

Melissa Donahoo, Development Coordinator

Celebrating Success: Phase 1 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

In late 2014, the Board of Trustees launched an ambitious $25 million campaign to raise much needed funds for preservation, education and conservation for our unique cultural treasure, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. To date, the Village has raised $13.8 million and completed over $6.1 million preservation projects, including the iconic 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling, the 1820 Meeting House and the new Welcome Center in the 1815 Carpenters’ Shop! Funding for these projects was provided in part by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the James Graham Brown Foundation and by many private individuals.

As an additional part of The Campaign for Shaker Village, a new donor-restricted endowment has been established, based on a generous challenge grant from an anonymous donor. This $2 million grant was matched by $4 million in contributions raised by the Board of Trustees prior to December 31, 2017. This ambitious effort has resulted in over $6.2 million, substantially increasing Shaker Village’s total endowment and providing greater long-term financial security for Shaker Village.

Continuing Our Investment: Phase 2 of The Campaign for Shaker Village

Projects in progress or completed in 2019 include the 1833 Water House, the 1860 Bath House, the 1821 Ministry’s Workshop and the 1811 Old Stone Shop. It’s exciting to see preservation at work around the Village and know that with each new rooftop installed and window preserved, we are ensuring the site’s future for many generations to come!

The 1817 East Family Dwelling.

In October of this year, we secured a multi-year gift of $750,000 from an anonymous donor toward the preservation of the 1817 East Family Dwelling. If you’ve visited recently, you may have noticed that preservation work has begun as we work to restore the windows in this building. A new rooftop, masonry work and more will be completed over the next few years without interrupting the function of the building. We have $250,000 remaining to raise to complete the fundraising for this project.

There is still much work to do!

We are pursuing several additional major gift opportunities for programming needs, a site-wide master plan, specific restoration projects and the endowment. Please join us in making a tax-deductible gift to support Shaker Village and its mission to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacy of the Kentucky Shakers!

You can make a donation right now or contact the Development Office at 859.735.1545 to find out more.