I am no fiend for re-created history. Detroit's Greenfield Village and Massachusetts' Sturbridge Village are nothing but folksy blurs left over from childhood vacations shaped by parents possessed pf a strong sense of duty even while at play.
At best I was tepid about visiting a restored Shaker village smack in the middle of Kentucky, no matter how much I hal heard about the chairs and the famous lemon pie. ''Made with the rind, the Shakers never wasted anything,'' someone had said.
In a word, I was unprepared for the sightthat greeted me as my Ford crested the limestone palisades hugging the Kentucky River. Here, against a horizon silhouetted by bare trees, the dusk suddenly flickered with pinpoints of lamplight. Across the rolling hills, grand Georgian buildings loomed up from the shadows like sentries to time past. In the center of Kentucky, a state I barely knew, I felt I was coming home.
It was a feeling that had to do with more than simply lemon pie and lamplight. It was a sense of undaunted pragmatism that is pure Yankee, an unflagging graciousness that is Southern hospitality, and a sense of rugged individualism that is, well, pure America.
Shakertown at Pleasant Hill was certainly not the largest Shaker settlement in the country. That distinction went to the Shaker village of Lebanon, N.Y. Nor was this the last settlement of surviving Shakers. Shakers still live in Canterbury, N.H., and Poland Spring, Maine. But Shakertown at Pleasant Hill is the largest restored Shaker settlement in the country.
With its soaring Georgian architecture and rolling countryside dotted with Leicester sheep and fieldstone fences, the village is more than a restoration of a utopian, agrarian community. It is a physical legacy to lives of perseverance and a profound faith in religious freedom. Visiting this settlement moved me to a pride in American history I had not expected. Who would have guessed that more than a century after their demise here, the ''Shaking Quakers'' could be so catalytic?
I suspected I was not alone. By most people's perceptions, the sect - a dissident branch of 18th-century Quakers started by English immigrant Ann Lee - is a minor and often overlooked corner of Americana. The Shakers' renown seldom extends beyond furnituremaking and their practice of celibacy - they lived communally as ''brothers'' and ''sisters.'' But fame seems to be coming their way.
Today the Shakers, whose numbers never totaled more than 17,000, are highly respected not only for their design sense, but also for agrarian excellence, mechanical innovation, and principles of sexual and racial equality. More than 15 museums in the United States and Britain, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Delaware's Winterthur Museum, exhibit Shaker collections. And four Shaker villages, only one of which is unrestored, are now open to the public. ''Shaker has become chic,'' explains Pleasant Hill president Jim Thomas. ''But the Shakers would have hated it,'' he adds with a smile. ''They wanted to withdraw from the world.''
I simply wanted to know more.
Roughly 25 miles south of Lexington and 30 miles from any major highway, I pulled into the parking lot as the last blush of light fled the Kentucky sky. Dashing into the trustees' office that serves as dining room and inn headquarters, I nearly tripped over Klondike, the snoozing resident retriever, and found myself surrounded by plump, smiling women in long dresses and crisp white caps.
Feeling as if I had stumbled onto a set for ''The Crucible,'' I was ushered into an oak-paneled, candle-lit dining room and made ready for the generous hospitality for which the Shakers had been famous. (During the Civil War, in the wake of the Battle of Perryville, the Shakers at Pleasant Hill had served as a commissary for hundreds of retreating Confederate soldiers. One of their many millennial laws reads: ''Ye shall not turn away the poor who ask alms of you, knowing that your Heavenly Father will provide for you.'')
''We Make Thee Kindly Welcome,'' read the menu right above the listings for corn bread, country ham, vegetables du jour, and, of course, lemon pie. After sampling all of the above as well as platters of relishes and homemade breads, all for less than $10 and ''no tipping allowed,'' I was a believer. So, it seemed, were the dozens of other diners nodding contentedly in what is considered the best dining room in Mercer County. But my interest in Shaker history was only whetted.
After registering at the inn - Shakertown is the only historic site in the country whose visitor accommodations are entirely within authentic buildings - I picked up a copy of ''Pleasant Hill and Its Shakers,'' by Shaker historian Thomas D. Clark, and retired to my room, the top half of the Cooper's Shop, to increase my knowledge of these unique people.
Here, in simple but comfortable surroundings - handwoven rag rugs, reproduction oak firniture, and enough white plaster to make the room seem positively uplifting - I discovered that Pleasant Hill was one of 18 Shaker villages that stretched from Maine to Indiana during the 18th and 19th centuries. Settled by first- or second-generation Kentucky pioneers, Pleasant Hill was, in its heydey, a 7,000-acre, 500-member, utopian agrarian community. In a world they considered evil, the Shakers saw agriculture and communal living as alone offering men and women a life of purity. And Pleasant Hill became a virtual model for agricultural excellence.
Blessed by fertile land and an aptitude for hard work, the Kentucky Shakers were, by 1816, earning thousands of dollars shipping their farm and handcraft surpluses downriver to markets in New Orleans. Although the Civil War and later the Industrial Revolution would make much of their handwork obsolete, the half century they flourished here helped solidify their reputation for excellent craftsmanship. ''Work is done in a plain modist stile (sic),'' reads one family member's journal. Beyond the famous ladder-back chair that later became the precedent for Danish-modern furniture, other innovations credited to Shaker ingenuity include the clothespin, flat broom, circular saw, washing machine, metal point pen, and double-barreled stove.
Like other communes, the Shaker settlements held all property in common and divided work equally. Their life style was highly regimented. Although relatively autonomous from other Shaker settlements - the Pleasant Hill Shakers were ruled by four resident elders and eldresses - millennial law issued from the older and larger New York settlement.
These laws specified nearly every aspect of Shaker life from color of bedstead (green) to which thumb of folded hands should be on top during prayer (left). The New York Shakers also instructed the sometimes errant Pleasant Hill settlers to remove their overly decorous Southern-style porches (they did) and cut down the ornamental shade trees (they refused.)
Yet the result of this sometimes mechanical life style was a life rich with the fruits of their labors. Like the New England Puritans, the Shakers believed work was a form of worship. Waste was frowned upon. Hence the admonition to ''Shaker your plate'' and a desire for neatness that spawned the traditional Shaker pegboards on which they hung everything from cloaks to candle sconces to chairs. Every Shaker was expected to work from dawn until dusk, and tasks were rotated to prevent pride in personal skills.
The day was long. Journal records indicate that family members rose at 4 a.m. in summer and 5 a.m. in winter. ''Brothers'' and ''sisters'' worked at separate tasks in separate buildings, although they shared dormitory-style living quarters. Meals were conducted in silence so as not to waste time.
Ironically, their worship services, nightly in their dwellings and on Sundays in the Meeting House, were the places for the ecstatic''laborings'' or shakings thqt ultimately earned the sect - correctly called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing - their common name.
Suddenly, I had to see this village. So, on a stunning Kentucky spring morning, after a staggeringly huge country breakfast, I set out to explore.
Of the 250 original structures, including barns and sheds, only 27 buildings remain, but these were the most significant: fully restored limestone, brick, and clapboard Georgian dwellings lining the original village road. Geographically they are divided into the family units - Center, East, and West - and surrounded by a still working farm. Sheep bleat from distant hills, and white picket and plank fences run everywhere.
During the morning and afternoon I spent taking my self-guided tour of the village, I trod up and down hand-cut limestone steps; walked through traditional double doors - one for the sisters and one for the brothers; gazed at the soaring Shaker-Georgian architecture designed by a self-taught builder, Micajah Burnett.
I also saw period demonstrations of broom-making, spinning, baking; leaned against fence posts; and grew in my appreciation for the industrious, clean-living Shakers.
Although not as extensive or comprehensive as either Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village - the craft demonstrations are not particularly unusual and, if pressed, one could tour here in an hour and a half - Shakertown remains a unique restoration.
Beginning with a federal loan in the 1960s, village restoration was completed with private funds under the auspices of former Williamsburg curator James Lowry Cogar. Much of the original furniture has been reacquired and buildings restored to their Spartan, white-plaster selves.
Today, Pleasant Hill is one of the few historic sights ever designated a national landmark from boundary to boundary.
But beyond those distinctions, Shakertown at Pleasant Hill stands as a way to discover how a 19th-century people actually thought and not simply how they lived. The double-hung entryways, the dormitory rooms, the Meeting House without a pulpit - all are testimony to a people's unique vision.
When I finally drove out the tree-lined drive to rejoin the world, I felt chastened, as if I had visited the home of some good people whom I would never get to meet.