Shakin’ it up in the Shaker Colony

Logan County, KY – On Sunday, I was dorking around in Logan County when I happened upon a Shaker historical site. I first learned of Shakers in January, when my buddy Amy and I happened upon the Shaker artifact section in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Not only could we not figure out who the Pennsylvania Shakers were exactly, but why their brooms and butter churns deserved their own section in such a prestigious institution. It appears that the Shakers had quite the presence back in the day here in Kentucky as well.

Shakers were a Protestant religious sect, known officially as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Like other religious sects in 17th Century England, Shakers were persecuted and eventually sought refuge in the New World, where they could live out their radical ideas, like sexual equality, in relative peace. At their peak, some 500 Shaker colonies with 20,000 members existed in New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Kentucky, among other states.

Today, it is estimated that only three Shakers – not colonies, but individuals – are left in all the world. It’s not hard to understand why. Shakers were strict celibates. As such, Shaker turnover was understandably high. Sex, even in the 18th and 19th Centuries, had to have been more appealing than the virtues butter-churning and broom-making. Shaker colonies only thrived as long as they did through mass adoptions, but once the states tookover adoptions, the flow of orphans to Shaker colonies was was greatly diminished. Now, just a few original Shaker buildings still stand. Among them the ones here in Logan County.

It was late Sunday afternoon when I arrived and the museum was closed – or was it? The sign said it was, but the open gate indicated otherwise. So I parked Purple Thunder, grabbed my camera and committed a little trespassing.

I approached the above building, its doors wide open! There was no one around for miles. Someone must have forgotten to close the gate and lock the buildings, as the sign clearly stated the grounds were closed. Since 28, when I became an adult, I’ve been weary of doing things that might land me in trouble with the law. But I was there, the door was open, and I entered. Let me say, I could’ve, had I wanted, made off with all of the tools necessary to begin my own Shaker colony.

There were butter churns, broom-making machines, and a wood-burning stove that was most tempting given the frigid temperatures in Kentucky these last few days.

Really, brooms and butter banal and everyday. I wondered how many people actually make a point to visit here.

Outside the unlocked building was the Shaker laundry room, which was actually hole-in-the-ground. From what I gathered, water was poured through holes in the roof that moved a cistern inside. Fearing there might be a million spiders in the dark hole, I didn’t enter.

This was the extent of my trespasses on Shaker grounds, which, aside from a few buildings, were dotted with dozens of markers indicating the kind of building that once stood at that particular spot. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find markers to be much fun at all. It was fitting nonetheless for an otherwise lackluster and, by most measures, insignificant culture that tried and failed. There wasn’t even a cemetery within eye-shot. I wondered if that meant no one in this colony died a Shaker.

But the most striking thing for me was, that in 2010, anyone still cared enough about this historical footnote to preserve, fund and maintain these large grounds with all of those little markers.

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