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Shaker Museum at South Union
Communal societies have always fascinated me. I am interested in how a system that can appear to be “perfect” can still disintegrate over time and vanish from our collective consciousness, becoming another quaint example of a group “ahead of their time” who just didn’t stand the test of time.
Such is the fate of the Shakers.
Most people today recognize the term to describe the simple designs of the furniture they created. Straight lines, sturdy materials, and practical innovations characterize the Shaker style. They made countless ladder back chairs with intricately woven caned seats that hung on wall pegs in order to facilitate cleaning the floors. This is what the Shakers are most widely known for.
They also invented several other things that have been integrated into our daily lives.
Take the simple broom, for example. Before the Shakers invented how to stitch together the straw to form a wide – and more efficient – surface area, brooms were simply straw tied together in bunches that probably stirred up more dust than they swept out of the room. The new design made sweeping easier.
The Shakers at South Union, located in southern Kentucky near Bowling Green, were innovators in garden seed packets. Think about it. If you traveled west to the Frontier to make your homestead, what would you need to sustain life? Seeds to plant crops! The Shakers made and sold thousands of seed packets to Pioneers.
Even though my husband and I had been to other Shaker sites and knew a little about their beliefs and culture, we were still impressed with both the museum and the knowledge of our tour guides.
The site at South Union was originally much larger than what you see today. It began in 1807 and closed in 1922, and was the furthest west of all the Shaker communities. It spanned thousands of acres and was comprised of nearly 200 buildings at one time. In the early 19th century, the community flourished. You have to shed 21st century ideology in order to fully understand why this was so. As one of our guides said, it would have been a very attractive option for a woman with many children, who had no form of birth control and little means to take care of such a large family.
Although the Shakers were celibate, they welcomed children into the community. Someone else would raise your kids for you, and because men and women lived strictly segregated lives, you would be in no danger of producing any more children! Married couples were not required to divorce in order to join the Shakers, but they were expected to live together as “brother and sister” instead of husband and wife. In short, no sex.
Out of almost 200 buildings, the museum today features only a few. Some other buildings still survive, but they do not belong to the museum. The main dwelling house is the museum’s showpiece. It contains furnished rooms depicting several aspects of Shaker life. The meeting room, dormitory style sleeping rooms, and kitchen show visitors how these people lived.
The dwelling house features several innovations. The outside window sills are made of limestone, not wood, to prevent rot. The busy meeting room was actually ventilated using a system of pipes that brought in fresh outside air. Even the interior walls were constructed with brick, and covered with plaster, to provide additional insulation.
Other buildings include a home for the group’s leaders and a smoke house.
Like all Shakers, those living at South Union were pacifists. As battle lines shifted north and south through Kentucky during the Civil War, there were many wounded soldiers from both Union and Confederate forces in the area. The Shakers fed and took care of anyone in need. And as our guide put it, “To thank them for their hospitality, soldiers from both sides took whatever they could carry when they left town.”
After the war the community at South Union was decimated. They attempted to rebuild, but society was changing and it was difficult to attract new members and keep the ones they had. In an ironic twist, one of the methods the Shakers used to sustain their community, eventually proved to tear it apart.
They believed that each individual should learn a wide range of skills in order to keep the community functioning properly. For example, if you were a blacksmith by trade, you would be expected to contribute your skill to the community. But you wouldn’t just be a blacksmith for the rest of your life. You would be transferred to different areas to gain new skills, so that everyone knew many jobs and could fill in if something happened to other members of the community.
In a post-Civil War industrial age, this system created individuals with several marketable skills that could make a fortune in “The World,” as the Shakers called it. Little by little the community shrank until there were only a few left. Most of the land and buildings were sold off and the community died off.
Years later, a group of women banded together to save some of the structures to create a museum. Because of their efforts, an important aspect of Kentucky’s rich heritage has been preserved.
I was surprised to learn that there are a handful of Shakers still alive today in a place called Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Shakers established 24 villages across the country. While they no longer have large communal societies anywhere in the United States, their legacy has been preserved in several museums throughout that bring their stories to life day after to day to eager batches of interested visitors.
NOTE: There is a bed & breakfast on site called The Shaker Tavern, which we did not see. It offers six guest rooms, some with private baths. It was originally operated by the Shakers as a “hotel” for Victorian era railroad travelers. The rates are reasonable. It sounds like an interesting place to stay!
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