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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Enfield Shaker Museum and Garden

by Karen Bussolini

The Enfield Shakers sold herbs, seeds, and world-renowned preparations made from cultivated and wild herbs

New Hampshire's long summer days, cool nights, and beautiful scenery draw many vacationers. But garden lovers, history buffs, and those who appreciate Shaker crafts and architecture will find a different way to get away from it all here: the Enfield Shaker Museum, on the western shore of Lake Mascoma, 12 miles southeast of Hanover.

The private, nonprofit museum, a small, still evolving enterprise, admirably preserves the Shakers' legacy in the form of buildings, material culture, and landscape. Its gardens, under cultivation for more than 200 years, give a picture of the Shakers' way of life as well as some ideas to take home.

In 1793, the Shakers settled what they named Chosen Vale to create a communal heaven on earth, away from the sins of "The World" and "he World' People." Of the 200 buildings once here, only a stone mill, some handsome wooden outbuildings, an enormous cow barn, and one large stone building remain.

Most impressive is a second, newer stone building, the austere gray granite Great Stone Dwelling. It once housed a hundred people and is now an inn. To its left is the classical-style Mary Keane Memorial Chapel, built by an order of the Catholic church, which took over the site after the Shakers departed, in 1923.

The Gardens

As a guest at The Shaker Inn at the Great Stone Dwelling, I enjoyed strolling in the herb gardens at dawn, warmed by a mug of hot coffee. I doubt that the Shakers, who believed that work was worship, enjoyed many idle or solitary moments here. Nor do Happy Griffiths, the energetic museum herbalist, and the volunteer Village Gardeners, who care for the garden. This garden interprets the Shaker way of life and also teaches about herbs as we might use them today.

Herb and vegetable fields once stretched down a gentle slope to Lake Mascoma. The herbs were a profitable crop, and a necessity in ministering to the health of the community. While we enjoy roses for their beauty and fragrance, the Shaker Sisters valued them for their utility: 150 years ago, they gathered rose petals in big sheets and produced rosewater from them. (Rosewater was used for culinary purposes and bathing patients in the infirmary, and to sell to the World's People.) The Enfield Shakers sold herbs, seeds, and world-renowned preparations made from cultivated and wild herbs.

Near the highway, the Display Herb Garden consists of 16 raised beds of herbs catalogued by uses. Medicinal beds include bee balm, betony, echinacea, feverfew, hyssop, thyme, and wild marjoram. Other beds display dye plants such as indigo and woad, and fragrant plants, which the Shakers used in potpourris. Culinary plants are also represented. In a raised bed at the right height for working from a wheelchair, plants are labeled in Braille and large type. A modern twist is a delightful bed of everlastings, which are dried and used in wreath-making workshops (Shakers picked flowers stemless so they couldn't be used for vain personal adornment).

Closer to the lake lies the production herb garden, where annuals such as basil, calendula, gomphrena, larkspur, strawflower, and other plants used in workshops are grown. Below that is the Heirloom Vegetable Garden, where visitors can see what broomcorn, flax, mangelwurzel, salsify, and other unfamiliar crops of the past look like.

The community was best known for its vegetable gardens, which produced food and seed crops. Seeds were of consistently high quality at a time when good gardening practices--such as using soil amendments and rogueing (pulling out undesirable seedlings)--were not widely understood, and seed quality was unreliable. Shakers were the first to package seeds in small printed packets instead of selling in bulk; this allowed for variety and freshness. Although the Shakers used few herbs for seasonings apart from sage, thyme, sweet marjoram, and summer savory, they sold tins of dried culinary herbs. In 1874, the community's vegetable and herb seed sales totaled $30,000.

However interesting the display gardens, people are what bring the place to life. Every Thursday at 11AM, Happy Griffiths leads a tour of the gardens, and on Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings she lectures on varied topics. These are good times to stop by the gardens, because Griffiths and her tireless assistant, Kitty Scherer, are there to answer questions and share their insights. They conduct workshops throughout the year on such subjects as herbal cosmetics, dried flower wreaths, planting herb gardens, and cooking with herbs, as well as hosting an annual day-long symposium.

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