The Herb Industry


The following text is adapted from Gerard C. Wertkin, The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: An Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1986), pp. 92-98.

At Sabbathday Lake, the first herbs raised for sale were grown in 1799. In 1824, the Society constructed an Herb House to facilitate the expanding business. It remains on the back row of the Shaker Village today, the only extant Shaker Herb House in the United States. According to the 1864 Catalogue of Herbs, Roots, Barks, Powdered Articles, &c. Prepared in the United Society, New Gloucester, Maine, published for Brother Charles Vining by a Portland printer, more than one hundred fifty medicinal herbs were offered for sale, as well as four varieties of culinary or sweet herbs packed in canisters.

The pharmaceuticals were prepared in small, compressed cakes, packed four to a pound. They were also available for sale in bulk. Listed in the Society's Catalogue with their botanical names and properties in Latin, the varieties Brother Charles offered ranged from such common barks as ground poplar (Populus tremuloides), white oak (Quercus alba) and hemlock (Pinus canadensis) at twelve cents per pound, to royal cowparsnip (Zizia aurea) at a dollar and ten cents per pound. The Shakers purchased varieties that could not be gathered locally or grown in the Maine soil.

A natural outgrowth of the pharmaceutical herb industry was a related business widely conducted in the Shaker communities, the production of patent medicines and other botanical compounds. The Shakers, whose communities were long associated in the public consciousness with purity and wholesomeness, found a ready market for their products, many of which were produced from natural ingredients grown in their own "physic gardens."

The production of herbs waned at Sabbathday Lake in the last years of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, today the community grows and sells culinary herbs and other herb products.