Shaker Beauty and Bounty
Shakerism is deeply rooted in an agricultural philosophy. Throughout their history, the Shakers amassed large tracts of land which they used to their fullest capacity. Canterbury Shaker Village was no different. At its height, the village was comprised of over 3,000 acres.
The first Shaker vegetable garden was planted in 1795 and spread over three acres. It has been in constant cultivation ever since. Shakers farmed not only for subsistence, but to sell their surplus harvest in order to fuel the Shaker economy. Potatoes, flax, wheat, rye and oats were the predominant crops, with large portions of land used for growing hay to feed the livestock.
The entrepreneurial attitudes of the Shakers led nearly every community to achieve notable progress in commercial farming including crop, timber and livestock production and the profitable Shaker herb and seed businesses. The Canterbury Shakers had started their seed business by 1795, a mere three years after arriving in Canterbury. With no concern for profit-taking, early cash surpluses were plowed back into land acquisition, new industries and other village improvements.
The Shakers were so successful in creating a commercial culture that generated surplus wealth that by the 1830s their accumulated wealth was generating public concern. In 1839, legislation was passed in New York that placed limits on how much land the state’s Shakers could acquire. There was talk of land monopolies and accusations that the Shakers were un-American. This charge is ironic, since land speculation was a time-honored American practice, even if it was viewed with suspicion by small farmers in the early nineteenth century.
The Shakers were among the first in the country to establish an herb business. They mostly harvested herbs and plants from their surrounding areas. Out of necessity, they began planting gardens to ensure a steady supply of non-native or scarce plants. The first botanic garden at Canterbury was planted by Dr. Thomas Corbett in 1816.
Corbett was highly regarded as a herbalist and healer, both throughout the Shaker villages as well as by his non-Shaker medical peers. He developed a packaging system for dried herbs and a distillery for herbal medicines. In 1835, he published Canterbury’s first medicinal herb catalog, listing 180 herbs for sale. Corbett created a business enterprise that helped sustain the Canterbury community for the rest of the 19th century.
Landscape architecture began to transform the village’s appearance beginning in the 1850s, when trees and plants were installed. Previously, all intentional plantings by the Shakers were solely functional. By the 1870s the Canterbury Shakers had accepted Victorian floral culture and laid out the first ornamental “pocket” flower gardens.
The village also contained an orchard, laid out in its current position in 1917. Several varieties of apples, as well as peaches, were cultivated for use in baking, cooking and to make apple cider.