The South Union Shaker Village west of Bowling Green is a place where visitors can be transported to a particular time and place in Kentucky history. While the Shakers themselves are gone from this site, the remarkable architecture and well-made relics of their hardworking culture remain.
“Shakers came to Kentucky about 1805, and they came here because of the great religious revivals that were going on at the time,” says Tommy Hines, executive director of South Union Shaker Village. “They were already really well established up in New England and New York, but they came here searching for new converts.”
The Shaker community took good care of its members, but being part of it did require some thoughtful sacrifice. Hines explains that the Shakers believed they could create a community that was a haven for people who were willing to devote their lives to godly pursuits. That dedication meant giving up all of one’s possessions and forgoing marriage.
“In their worship, they had these exercises or dances that they did as a ritual, and people who came to their church on Sundays made fun of them and called them Shakers,” says Hines. “So that’s where that name came from. They accepted it and even used it to market their products throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Shakers are known for their strong work ethic, which is evident in the structures and items found around the village.
“The Shakers sought perfection in everything they did, whether it was the construction of a building, the sewing of a dress, the making of a pie,” says Hines. “Whatever it was, they believed that work was worship. That’s why we have such great material culture that’s come out of Shaker villages. The architecture is so fine, the furniture is so well-made. It’s the thought behind it, not just the craftsmanship.”
Today, South Union Shaker Village exists as an educational facility where visitors of all ages can explore the 10 original buildings that remain and learn what it was like to live in that community.
Besides physical items, the Shakers also left behind a legacy of progressive thought that was well ahead of their time. Hines says that men and women were considered equals in Shaker villages. African-American members of the community lived side-by-side with white members, even as the institution of slavery was still in full force in the outside world.
“I think the contribution of the Shakers is really many fold,” says Hines. “The idea of inclusiveness. The idea that the Shakers believed that all races were equal and that men and women were equal, way before most people did, is something we’ve got to hold on to today. We need to know that’s not a new idea. It’s been around a long time. It’s just taken us a long time to accept that.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2309, which originally aired on April 14, 2018. Watch the full episode.