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.

Preserving the Shaker Legacy

Melissa Williams, Development Coordinator

It’s fascinating to look through photographs from the time between when the Shakers closed  their covenant at Pleasant Hill in 1910 and the opening of the Village in 1968 as an educational nonprofit organization. These photographs tell a five-decade story of change, care, preservation and deterioration, as private citizens took ownership and utilized many Shaker buildings for their homes and businesses.

Despite the changing uses of the buildings, the legacy of the Shaker community, their faith, and their values have endured at Pleasant Hill. Local residents and those who passed through the Village on U.S. Highway 68 recognized that  Pleasant Hill represented something very important, and it needed to be preserved and shared with future generations.

Preservation efforts gained momentum during the 1950s as private citizens came together in a more organized way. In 1961 – 60 years ago –our non-profit organization was formalized and incorporated. Tasked with the enormous undertaking of acquiring the remaining Shaker structures and the land previously held by the Shakers, the organization set to work raising funds and restoring the buildings to their mid-19th century aesthetics.


Earl D. Wallace, chairman at Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Inc., breaks ground at the former Shaker community to celebrate the beginning of a 12-month construction and restoration project costing more than $1 million. June 21, 1966. The Courier-Journal
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The initial restoration and preservation of the Village is an inspiring story,  illustrating the allure Pleasant Hill has held since it was settled by the Shakers 216 years ago. But the $1 million restoration project carried out in the 1960s is just the beginning of the preservation of the site. In the decades that followed,  our nonprofit has worked to preserve the restoration, with this work continuing today

Over the last decade, Shaker Village craftsman have conducted at least $1 million of work each year to ensure the long-term preservation of the 34 historic buildings on the site, as well as the cultural landscape. Our long-term historic preservation plan is based on this level of spending on an annual basis.

A price tag of at least $1 million a year seems like a lot of money, so how is that money spent?

The most immediately recognizable preservation projects are those that include a comprehensive work plan including the roof, doors, windows, interior woodwork, exterior siding, and masonry of the building. Since 2016, Shaker Village has completed such projects for the 1815 Carpenters’ Shop, 1820 Meeting House, 1824-34 Centre Family Dwelling, 1833 Water House and 1860 Brethren’s Bath House.

East Family Dwelling during renovation.
East Family Dwelling with new roof.

Currently Shaker Village craftsmen are undertaking a multi-year preservation project for the 1817 East Family Dwelling that began in 2019. If you have stayed this building’s overnight rooms in the last decade, you’ve seen firsthand the condition of the windows, which is one area of concern for this 16,000 sq. ft. building. Our carpenters and painters spent most of 2020 methodically working through repairs to window frames and sills on about one-third of the 79 existing windows; this work will continue until all of the windows have been restored. In 2020, our crew also completed repairs to several of the building’s doors and the wood shake roof was replaced. In the latter half of 2021, you’ll see scaffolding reappear around this building as stone masons begin the task of repointing and cleaning the exterior masonry.

While the historic preservation plan lays out 18 additional and upcoming comprehensive projects, preservation work happens on a smaller scale across the Village throughout the year.

Painters working on interior walls.
Painters working on building exterior.

Each year the SVPH painters repair loose plaster on interior walls. The plaster will become loose over time due to regular use, environmental factors such as humidity, and water leaks created by deteriorating roofs, windows and doors as well as by leaks in the HVAC systems that serve the historic buildings.

Meeting House door being repaired.
Repaired door at the Meeting House.

The carpenters repair doors and thresholds. Doorways become damaged over time by regular use, water and humidity, sunlight and wind.

Rock wall in need of repair.
Rock wall all after repairs.

The stone mason repairs breaks in the historic stone fences. Changing temperatures slowly cause the rocks to shift and then topple. Sometimes human interactions also damage these landscape features. In 2020, we repaired 35 breaks in the fences ranging from 3 feet to 10 feet in length. Each linear foot costs between $40 and $60 to repair. 

Buildings and Grounds Manager Mike Brown receives an award for excellence in maintenance.

The maintenance team keep the mechanical systems working.  Shaker Village has a mix of systems that provide modern heating, air conditioning, and hot water to the historic buildings: The East Family buildings, Centre Family Dwelling, the Meeting House, the 1813 Old Ministry’s Shop and the 1824 Tanyard are heated and cooled by geothermal systems, while the West Family buildings, the 1839 Trustees’ Office and 1821 Ministry’s Workshop are serviced by boiler-chiller plants. These plants were originally installed in the 1960s and while some of the components of both plants have been upgraded in recent years, these systems are challenging to maintain.

Our nonprofit made a commitment to preserve the historic buildings and the cultural landscape when it formed in 1961. Over the last six decades, Shaker Village has carried through with that commitment. This work has been made possible by donors who have supported this powerful place with charitable gifts, and by our guests who have stayed overnight, dined at the Trustees’ Table, shopped and explored. The preservation of Pleasant Hill is work that will never be completely done, however, we are committed to doing our part as the stewards of Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark.

Learn more about preservation at Shaker Village and how you can get involved.

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

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.

Water House Preservation…Part 2!

William Updike, Vice President of Natural and Cultural Resources

Many of you may recall we began working to preserve the 1833 Water House, just east of the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling, last summer with a major structural repair to the front of the building. Read more on that here! I am excited to tell you that within the next two weeks we will begin to start work on the second phase of this project to preserve one of the most important buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill!

The south facade of the 1833 Water House was repaired in the summer of 2018.

The Water House contained the water tank the Pleasant Hill Shaker’s used to provide water to the village. Water was pumped uphill, from a spring, to the storage tank where it was distributed throughout the village in a piping system similar to how many of us get water to our homes today! This was one of the first waterworks west of the Allegheny Mountains, and one of the earliest in the nation.

Our work will involve making repairs to, and replacing as necessary, the roof rafters to remove the noticeable sag in the roof. Once that is complete we will make any other necessary structural repairs, and replace approximately ¾ of the siding. Much like a roof, siding is a sacrificial surface, and eventually reaches the end of it serviceable life.

We have already built new window frames and sashes for the upper gable windows, and have those ready to install. We also built a new front door. Most of the windows and the door of this structure were built during prior restorations, and our new versions are made of more resilient wood to provide many years of service in years to come. Once we complete all of the carpentry, we will install a new roof and paint the building! We look forward to reopening the building for guests to enjoy later this fall!

This project was made possible by generous donations from individuals who love Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and help us care for this important site. If you would like to join us in this effort, please click here to donate!