On a recent trip to Michigan we stopped and visited the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill.
I've been fascinated by the Shaker community for a number of years now, being most familiar with the Pleasant Hill Community in Kentucky.
People came to this country for many different reasons, but one thing united them all, a desire to try something new, live by a different set of rules. Naturally, with such independent spirits and liberal beginnings there were many Utopian experiments in Early America, religious and otherwise. To me the Shakers were the most endearing, beautiful and efficient experiment.
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing were given the name Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, by the outside world because of their unusual dancing. The Shakers did not believe in a house of worship, instead believing that work was worship. Their mantra was "Hands to work, Hearts to God."
The Shakers were industrious, inventive people, inventing or improving many objects that we still use today. They believed in technology, science and hygiene. On average shakers lived 15 to 20 years longer than the people of the "outside world."
Shakers believed in equality. They believed that men and women were equals, and races were equal. They were vehemently opposed to slavery, on some occasions purchasing slaves from their masters to free them from slavery.
The architect of the Pleasant Hill Community was Micajah Burnett, a brilliant man referred to as the "Thomas Jefferson of the West" by one of the Shaker historians that I talked to. A self-taught mathematician, architect and engineer, he was brought to Pleasant Hill in 1809 by his parents. He was 17 years old. At the age of 26 Micajah began mapping out the Pleasant Hill Community.
For me, the Shakers represent the height of American design and philosophy. Craftsmanship that attempted to go beyond human, design that worked simply and efficiently, with satisfying and pleasing proportions. With all of the tools available, perhaps the most valuable was Ockham's Razor. We could learn a lot from their aesthetic today.
It is easy to feel the presence of craftsmen at Pleasant Hill, whose goal was to transcend what is human, and whose mark of craftsmanship was to attempt to go beyond what is possible.