Restoring the World’s Last Shaker Herb House

A by-the-numbers look at a unique building's impending facelift at New Gloucester’s Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.

The herb house at New Gloucester’s Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.
Photograph by Curt DeBaun III
By Brian Kevin
From our June 2022 issue

200 years

Approximate age of the Herb House at Sabbathday Lake, where the utopian religious community built the timber-frame structure (or maybe adapted an existing one) no later than 1824, records show, for drying and processing herbs. With clapboards on three sides, wood shingles on the other, and a cedar-shake roof, it’s a utilitarian three-story building and the last Shaker herb house in the country. When a restoration expert from Berwick’s Preservation Timber Framing visited last year, she was at a loss to categorize it. “It is rare to encounter a frame of this age that was not a residence, barn, place of worship, or municipal building,” she wrote. “Unique and significant.”

155 varieties

Types of medicinal herbs, roots, and barks listed in an 1864 catalog from Sabbathday Lake. Shakers there launched their herb business in 1799. Starting in the early 19th century, when membership peaked around 150, the community devoted much of its horticultural efforts to growing herbs.

60 cents

Cost, in the 1880s, of a box of Shaker Tamar Laxative, a mix of tamarind, prunes, cassia bark, henbane, and wintergreen and one of Sabbathday Lake’s more successful products in the late 19th century. Shakers then had a reputation as “America’s pharmacists,” but regulation of patent medicines and drug-industry competition crippled the sect’s business after 1900, and Shaker herb houses across the country were demolished.

2 Shakers

Remaining members of the faith at Sabbathday Lake, the world’s last active Shaker community, where staff and volunteers still grow and process herbs for culinary uses and teas, alongside Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter. With the Herb House derelict, they’re sorted, dried, and packaged in other buildings.

$750,000 grant

Amount the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded in April to rehab the old Herb House — its maximum award, which only seven other nationwide projects received. When completed, the new Herb House Cultural & Traditional Arts Center will be a year-round production facility, with a work floor, drying attic, and storeroom, along with interpretive exhibits and herbalism classes for visitors. Fundraising is ongoing for the estimated $4.3 million total cost.