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Kentucky Village Is a Little Bit of Shaker History

June 21, 1987|JERRY BELCHER | Times Staff Writer

Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.

--Mother Ann Lee

Betty Jo Pealer, a sweet-faced, matronly woman costumed in a simple, drab and virtually shapeless 19th-Century housedress, stood smiling in front of visitors in the big gymnasium-like meeting hall of Shaker Village.

She had just given a verbal sketch of the beliefs and life style of the tiny religious sect formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (better known as the Shakers), which established the village in 1806 as the most westerly outpost of the 18 utopian communities that once flourished in this country.

She described how this old hall once rocked with the frenzied whirling, stomping, leaping and singing that constituted the Shakers' best-known form of worship. It was this athletic exercise of spirit and body, she explained, that earned the Believers the once derisive but later universally accepted appellation of Shakers.

She touched on their best-known doctrine, based on the ideas of their illiterate but eloquent prophetess, Mother Ann Lee, who brought the first Shakers to America in 1774, that the true way to salvation was through public confession of sin and absolute celibacy.

Bluegrass Country

Mrs. Pealer told how fewer than a dozen practicing Shakers remain in the world, and none at all in this (ironically) thriving village in the rolling Bluegrass Country 25 miles southwest of Lexington.

Mother Lee's wise words on the work ethic, quoted above, go a long way toward explaining why Shaker Village exerts such a powerful pull on the imagination of the American tourist of the late 20th Century.

Built strong, solid and lastingly, this is no throwaway suburbia destined to fall into slums before the mortgages are paid off.

Whatever one thinks of their religious practices and beliefs--among them the conviction that the world would end within 1,000 years, at which time Christ would reappear, reincarnated as a woman--the Shakers were remarkably inventive and skilled builders, farmers, mechanics and furniture makers.

Among other things, historians say, their communal labors and inventiveness created not only bumper crops of grain, fruit, flax and tobacco but also such handy devices as the clothespin, the flat broom, the circular saw, the washing machine, the metal pen point, the dump wagon (predecessor of the dump truck) and the screw propeller.

The Shakers are, of course, most celebrated for the elegant furniture and smaller handicrafts they designed and built in their workshops, everything from wonderful oval nesting boxes to ladder-back chairs to wall clocks.

There is considerable irony in the fact that authentic Shaker furniture, entirely functional and devoid of ornamentation, is both highly prized (and priced) by both museums and private collectors. A genuine Shaker piece can sell for several thousand dollars, and modern replicas can be almost as costly. In other words, it's trendy--it feeds the pride and vanity of man.

Trendiness aside, anyone with more than a passing interest in history, religion, agriculture, architecture, antiques or handicrafts should find Shaker Village fascinating.

Wear good walking shoes--there are no tour buses on the grounds. Read the free "Map and Guide" handed out at the ticket booth for a capsule history of the village and details about the wonderfully unworldly yet practical people who once lived and prospered here.

Unhurried Purpose

No matter how many other tourists are here, the first thing you'll notice is the feel of the place--the quiet, the serenity, the neatness and the sense of unhurried purpose that seem to permeate the atmosphere.

Part of this feeling, no doubt, is the physical beauty of the 4,200 acres of sinuous green fields surrounding the village. Another is the clean, lean economy of line inherent in the architecture of the 27 lovingly restored buildings on the immaculately kept grounds.

And yet another is the respect you feel for this oddly appealing, now vanished band of religious zealots who once worked and worshiped here. The village ceased to function as a viable community in 1910; the last local Shaker died in 1923.

This feeling grows as you move through your self-guided tour with well-informed interpreters such as Mrs. Pealer and the craft workers demonstrating their skills so earnestly.

The starting point is the Centre Family Dwelling, built between 1824 and 1834. Interpreter Dixie Huffman explains that the three-story limestone building, with its 40 austere rooms, is the largest structure in the village. Its principal function was as a dormitory, accommodating about 100 Brethren and Sisters of the sect.

And, although the Shakers' beliefs included equality of the sexes (and of races), it was an equality practiced with strict precautionary sexual segregation--this, of course, lest the temptation of proximity lead to violation of their even firmer belief in celibacy.

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