Knee-Deep in June: Summer Camp at Shaker Village

Billy Rankin, Vice President of Public Programming & Marketing

To think of the stunted and withered childhood of our hot streets taken out into the country to breath the fresh air, to lay down on the green grass, to look up thru the green leaves into the blue vault of Heaven… – “The Children’s Summer Home at Shaker Town,” The Lexington Leader, June 12, 1916

Two boys standing on Pleasant Hill’s historic turnpike. Early 20th-century.

Modest Beginnings

Organized summer camps for children first appeared in the United States in 1861 when, in the early days of the Civil War, Frederick W. Gunn took a group of boys from Connecticut on a two-week trip to “spend time in nature, enjoy physical activity, and build character.” The concept of summer camps quickly gained momentum, and by the end of the century YWCA, YMCA, Boys’ Club, and a myriad of private camps had begun to open across the country. 1

It was the summer of 1916 when the idea of a summer “camp” for children at Pleasant Hill first sprung to life. Only six years earlier, the few remaining Shakers of the society determined to close their covenant to new members. Much of the property had already been sold to private owners, with many Shaker buildings being used as businesses, homes, and for agricultural purposes.

One of the remaining Shakers, Dr. William Pennebaker, took private ownership of a parcel on the west end of the Village, including the 1821 West Family Dwelling and 1811 Old Stone Shop. In 1916 the management of Lexington’s Associated Charities was seeking a “home during the hot months of July and August for some of the little children of Lexington whose parents…are unable to give them even the actual necessaries for life.” In partnership with Dr. Pennebaker, “Shakertown” became that home, and the first “organized summer camp experience” took place at Pleasant Hill.

Explorer Day Camp at Shaker Village includes activities and programs across 3,000 acres of natural and historic landscape.

That summer the experience was described as “…running knee-deep in June amid grass and wildflowers and beneath the overhanging branches of big trees, with the added joys of an abundance of cold, sweet milk, bread, butter, vegetables, watermelons and fruits – what a prospect the Shakertown adventure offers!”2

Summer Camp Returns

The partnership between Dr. Pennebaker and Associated Charities was short-lived, bringing summer camp at Pleasant Hill to a close after only one season. It would be 100 years before organized summer camp experiences would return to the Village.

In June 2016, Explorer Day Camp was born. Over the course of two, one-week sessions, 22 children became the first participants in a new summer tradition. Taking full advantage of the resources at Shaker Village, campers participated in programs for gardening, environmental education, archery, fishing, crafts, hiking, music, field games, and more.

Camp staff and campers during the first summer of Explorer Day Camp in 2016.

In subsequent years the program has continued to grow, adding year-round, dedicated staff, additional camp sessions, expanded opportunities for teen campers, and constantly evolving programs and activities. Explorer Camp now operates seven sessions of camp throughout June and July, while Teen Service Leadership and Leaders-in-Training welcome teen campers to develop their leadership skills. In total, 240 children will spend a portion of their summer in camp at Shaker Village this year.

Why Camp?

If you or your child have never experienced summer camp, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. What makes camp different from other childcare options? Is it worth the cost and effort?

A well-run summer camp with trained counselors is one of the best investments you can make for your child. Here are a few reasons why:

Explorer Camp counselors facilitate activities that develop teambuilding and leadership skills.
  • Camp is a safe and nurturing environment that enhances social skills. Camp is for everyone, so children and youth have the opportunity to meet and interact with peers from outside their school environment.
  • Camp supplements traditional education. Camps use intentional programming to create a balance of experiential learning opportunities that are physical, emotional, and social.
  • Camp is a natural extension of the classroom. Research indicates that by participating in strategically planned, structured summer experiences, children reduce summer learning loss. Camp challenges children, keeps them engaged, develops creativity and their talents, and expands their horizons.
  • Camp provides experiences that promote self-confidence and future academic growth. American Camp Association independent research shows that parents and camp staff, as well as the campers themselves, report significant growth in several areas, including leadership, independence, social comfort, and values and decisions.
  • Camp encourages a respect and love of nature. Children are able to learn about the natural world. Camp also gives them a chance to “unplug.” More and more experts are advocating the value of time spent in nature for children — and camp is a perfect place to do that.
  • Camp provides the opportunity to stay physically active. Camp is the ultimate outdoor experience with programs that offer physical activities and enhance health and teach self-confidence.3

Continuing to provide a high-quality summer camp experience is now firmly engrained in the mission of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

If you would like to learn more about upcoming summer camp programs at the Village, or the benefits of summer camp, please contact us! [email protected]

  1. “Timeline of ACA and Summer Camp”, American Camp Association, 2024 ↩︎
  2. “The Children’s Summer Home at Shakertown”, The Lexington Leader, June 12, 1916 ↩︎
  3. “The Long-Lasting Benefits of Camp”, American Camp Association, 2013 ↩︎

The Power of Play

Billy Rankin, Vice President of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series outlining long-range planning at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. New to the series? You can visit our previous articles here:

Too Many People Grow Up

Too many people grow up. That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don’t remember what it’s like to be 12 years old. They patronize, they treat children as inferiors. – Walt Disney

Many people, myself included, first experienced Shaker Village as a child. My first visit came on a fourth grade field trip in the 1980s. Although my memories from that visit have surely faded a bit, if I close my eyes I can still feel what it was like on that first trip.

I remember the sun shining through the green leaves of so many trees. I remember running ahead of my group, as I often did, to try to be the first one to discover each new building we approached. I remember the smell of the farm, and of the wool that lay in a pile, freshly removed from a now undressed sheep. I remember the long, never-ending trip down to the river, for a riverboat ride. Everything seemed so large, so new, and so exciting.

Summer campers exploring Shawnee Run Creek at Shaker Village.

When I returned to Shaker Village in 2015, now as an adult joining the staff, the Village still seemed large, new and exciting. It was different though, as any place is when you haven’t visited since you were a child. Maybe not quite so large, or so new. There were also fewer children visiting Shaker Village on an annual basis then there had once been, which was a challenge that needed to be addressed.

A Place for Children

Why had the number of children visiting Shaker Village declined through the years? There are several, collective answers to that question. Classroom curriculum and priorities had been shifting through the decades, leading to an overall decline in student visitation to historic sites nationwide. The competition from phones, video games and multimedia of all kinds was certainly making an impact, as was the expanding variety of other options vying for the recreational time of families.

How could an historic site in Mercer County, Kentucky compete for the ever-shrinking attention span of today’s youth?

The answer was, and is, pretty simple, and it was hidden in our mission statement all along.

To inspire generations through discovery, by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers.

It’s all about discovery. Experiential learning. Getting dirty hands and sweaty foreheads. Exploring the architecture and landscape. Meeting animals. Hiking the trails. Making something of your own, rather than watching someone else (likely an adult) doing it for you.

With the basis of discovery, and experiential education, school programming was redesigned. Explorer Summer Camp was started. Family Fun Days, HarvestFest, Brunch with the Babies, Easter Egg Hunts and other events were born or revamped. Children are learning and having fun at high numbers once again at Shaker Village.

The Birth of the Playscape

As youth programs have grown at Shaker Village, our Leadership Team has recognized the need for more places on the property that are intentionally designed for the experience of children. We discussed playgrounds and park equipment, but that type of environment never felt like a good fit for our historic landscape. Fortunately, while visiting regional nature centers as part of our research, we came to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, in Clermont, Kentucky. It was there that we were first introduced to the idea of a play landscape.

A play landscape is designed using natural materials: logs, branches, stones, earthen mounds, sand and water, built into an environment that encourages children to climb, build and explore. This concept was immediately striking to our team. Children that were raised by the Shakers at Pleasant Hill would have played in nature, with relatively primitive, natural materials. The use of natural elements in this playscape connects guests of all ages to the foundation of Pleasant Hill’s story, and blends much more seamlessly into the environment of this important cultural landmark.

The Benefits of Play in Nature

According to the Children at Play Network, some of the many benefits of playing in a natural setting include: a reduction in ADHD through improved concentration and focus, better physical coordination and balance, greater imagination and creativity, and improved cognitive development. Additional research has shown that play in nature buffers the impact of life’s stresses on children, helps them better deal with adversity and stimulates cooperation with others.

Armed with this information, and a supportive partnership from Bernheim Forest, our team helped to design a children’s playscape to be built along the south side of the historic vegetable gardens, alongside and behind the animal paddocks that run the length of those gardens.

Just Around the Corner

Through the generosity of two private donors, the Shaker Village Playscape is a fully-funded project. We expect work on the playscape to begin before the end of the summer this year, with the area fully operational in time for all of our spring events in 2024!

The next time you visit the Village and you see a child playing in the garden, the creek or the new playscape, take a moment to close your eyes and remember what true discovery feels like. It can inspire so much in us all. Maybe it will inspire you to get a little dirt under your fingernails, a little sweat on your brow, and to remember what a large, new and exciting world it can be!

Follow Our Progress

As projects develop, you can expect to hear more about the progress on social media, through emails and on the Shaker Village blog. We hope you follow along!

If you have questions about master site planning at Shaker Village, or if you would like to support our efforts, please reach out to our Vice President of Public Programming & Marketing, Billy Rankin at [email protected] or 859.734.1574.