Choosing What to Save Seminar and Tours of Historic South Union Shaker Village
Some of the most beautiful architecture in the United States can be found at South Union Shaker Village. A visit to this wonderful historic site takes one back in time and perhaps gives a better understanding of the challenges facing the Shakers.
When the Shakers founded the South Union Village in Auburn, Kentucky in 1807, it was one of 19 communal villages in America. Beginning with only a few converts, it eventually amassed a farm of 6,000 acres and 225 buildings, and produced an economy that brought great financial success. The Shaker principles dictated an excellence, simplicity and order that contributed to a vast material culture at South Union coveted today for its revelations and enormous interpretive value.
Financial hardship and a dwindling membership forced the sale of the village in 1922, and, divided into parcels, it fell into private hands. In the summer of 1962, an annual South Union Festival that featured an outdoor drama was established. A nonprofit, Shakertown Revisited, was formed in September 1964, and in 1971, the Centre House, Preservatory building and three acres of land were purchased jointly by the nonprofit and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Over the years, nine of the 225 buildings and 500 of the 6,000 acres of land have been reacquired.
While the most significant buildings have been brought under South Union’s care, there is hope of acquiring additional land for farming. The village has been fortunate to have original Shaker furniture donated, and they continue to receive furnishings and materials to this day. Since the nonprofit’s formation, South Union Shaker Village has worked valiantly and tirelessly to preserve the architecture, material culture and collections of the Shaker Society that once existed there. They are distinguished from other Shaker communities due to the Southern influence of their architecture with arched windows and doorways a hallmark of their buildings and a departure from the squared windows and doorways found at other Shaker communities.
Their collection of hand-written journals kept daily by the Shakers describing the details of their everyday life, and collection of authentic Shaker artifacts are lessons in the order, simplicity, ingenuity and discipline that drove their success in textile production, furniture making, the seed industry, functional inventions and architecture.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of history here at the Shaker Museum at South Union is the Civil War period, 1861-1864. The Shaker journals tell us how hard it was for the Shakers. Even though they did not fight, their losses were great. Excerpts from their journals are sold in their gift shop and make wonderful gifts for anyone interested in history.
Samples of some of the entries in these journals include:
March 1861—Great excitement about these times throughout the Southern country, about the election of one Abraham Lincoln of Illinois to fill the chair of the United States at the expiration of the term of James Buchanan.
November 1, 1861—The Western part of Kentucky is now under the control of the Rebels.
January 22, 1862—Scots Cavalry regiment called and expect to camp in our lots near the Office for some days. We were ordered to furnish 600 pounds of bread. There being no chance to get off, the Sisters undertook to furnish it which was completed by 3 o’clock next A.M. Poor Sisters, no sleeping done that night.
May 30, 1862—About 400 Federal Cavalry marched up in order this morning for breakfast.
November 8, 1862—Some rebels passed through here today 7 in number. A squad of Federals took their track but failed to find them.
March 7, 1863—Soldiers are here, a good many squads now scouring the country taking all the violent Rebels they can find.
June 10, 1863—110 cavalry of the 22nd Indiana passed here today going West. They had with them 6 12-pound parrot cannons. They and their caissons required 96 horses to draw them.
Letter written and signed by J. N. Rankin and H. L. Eades to the President—To The Honorable Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America Kind Friend. —asking the President to exempt the Shakers from fighting in the Civil War.
South Union’s educational materials, community programs, school tours, adult tours, exhibits, workshops, seminars, demonstrations, furniture discussions and farm-to-table events have contributed to one of the most enriching and culturally dynamic repositories of Shaker life -- heightening its appeal and attracting thousands of visitors of all ages from all over the world. They have grown from a one-room museum to a complex of 19th century Shaker structures, surrounded by original farmland.
For their preservation of the Shaker legacy in Kentucky, restoration of the magnificent Shaker architecture, and ongoing research into the fascinating history of the Shakers, Preservation Kentucky presented them with their 2018 Edith S. Bingham Excellence in Preservation Education Award.