Marily Myers Slade: Canterbury Shaker Village And Its Gardens

Roundup: Talking About History

Gardens reflect their designers' sensibilities as surely as houses reveal their owners' personalities. Nowhere is this more evident than at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. There, amid captivating blossoms and exuberant growth, it is possible to step back in time and experience what it meant to be a Believer.

The village was established in 1792 by the followers of Mother Ann Lee, who fled England in 1774 to escape religious persecution. By the mid-1850s, Canterbury comprised 3,000 acres and more than 100 buildings overseen by 300 sisters and brothers of the United Society of Believers, a celibate sect also known as the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, because of their use of dance in worship rites. At the time, the Shaker movement was at its peak. Historians differ on how many Believers there were across the country, but between 4,000 and 6,000 brothers and sisters are estimated to have lived in about 18 communities from Maine to Kentucky. Today, only a few Shakers remain.

Nurturing that past, the preserved New Hampshire village is considered one of New England's top cultural attractions. The gardens, along with the 25 buildings that remain on the property, reflect their Shaker heritage, both in their beauty and in their care.
True to their motto - "Hands to work and hearts to God" - the Shakers worked the land with great care and efficiency. A 3-acre vegetable garden supplied a major portion of the community's food. "If anything was left over," Frey says, "they sold it and fed the poor. That tradition continues today."

But the Canterbury Shakers were best known for their herb and botanical gardens, which were used in the medicinal products and seeds that eventually became the major source of the community's income. "The World, as Shakers called outsiders, regarded their products as superior," says Frey. "Their reputation was built on integrity, their inventiveness, and their abilities to produce the best."

The botanical garden remains on its original site but has been reduced from 1 1/2 acres and 350 plant varieties to just 40 feet by 70 feet and 70 types of plants, including dandelion, hyssop, southernwood, wild indigo, coltsfoot, and gas plant. Canterbury's first physician, Thomas Corbett, is given credit for planning the garden as well as for the many cures his botanical formulas gave The World. The most popular was his Syrup of Sarsaparilla, made from Aralia nudicaulis, or American sarsaparilla, which grew wild in Canterbury. The tonic was also 10 percent alcohol and claimed to cure so many ailments that it took 12 lines on the label to list them all.

comments powered by Disqus