Shakers and Herbs, Part One

The Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774. Like most of the new colonists, they brought some herbal knowledge with them. Yarrow, boneset, dandelion (which is not native to North America) are some of the plants brought over from Britain. Although there were doctors, most of a family’s medical needs were served by a wife or mother, midwife – not the doctor. But I digress.

Again like many of the new colonists, the Shakers drew upon the knowledge of the local tribes to learn about the herbs in the woods. At first, the Shakers wanted the herbs to treat the illnesses in their own community. Later, they planted physic gardens to meet their needs. As farmers everywhere do, if they grew a surplus, they sold it. This was the beginning of a thriving  and very profitable business.

Although Watervliet was the first Shaker community, (just outside of Albany several of the old fields now lie under the Albany airport), the Central Ministry was located at New Lebanon in New York (west of Albany.) The herbal trade began here and soon spread to several other communities, Canterbury, NH and Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio among them. AS we all know, the health business is rife with quackery, The snake oil salesman is a caricature of reality for our early history. The Shakers, despite the fact they were considered religious oddities (almost cultists) brought herbal medicines to respectability.

It was also incredibly lucrative. At its height, the business grossed $150,000 annually. This in a time when an experienced carpenter might make four shillings a week. In today’s money, that $150,000 a year would be worth upwards of 2 million.

The Shakers, by the way, kept meticulous records. Besides commercial transactions , they carefully documented what herb was shipped where and what it cost, they kept records of every aspect of Shaker life. The health of every individual was of prime importance. In fact, the Millennial Laws decreed that “As the natural body is prone to sickness and disease, it is proper that there should be suitable persons appointed to attend to necessary duties in administering aid to those in need.” In health care, as in so many other practices, the Shakers were well in advance of the society that surrounded them.

A quick review of the records pertaining to the deaths of these community members and in an age when the life span was between 40 and fifty, it is not surprising to find Shakers passing away at 87, 88 and even 101.

I based my primary Shaker community Zion on Sabbathday Lake which is located in Alfred, Maine. It is still home to the last remaining Shakers. (Three at last count. When I first began my research several years ago there were ten.) A visit to any of the gift shops in what were once thriving Shaker communities reveals packets of herbs for purchase, all packed at Sabbathday Lake. The remaining Shakers continue to labor exactly as they always have done.

Next: a review of some of the less common herbs used and sold by the Shakers.

More about food – Garden Sass

Women in the cities might not be responsible for smoking and drying game and pork as well as preserving other types of food but women on farms and certainly on the frontier were.

Most homesteads owned pigs and even in cities the pigs ran free. Chickens might be in coops or be truly free range, foraging for themselves. (That must have made hunting for eggs fun).

And, no matter how much acreage was in corn, rye or other grains, housewives always had a small patch of vegetables. (Many of them must of had flowers too since lists of seeds and bulbs that were brought over included seeds for peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees as well as seeds for snapdragons, peonies, morning glories and tulip bulbs.)Wheat bread was expensive although wheat was grown in Pennsylvania. In Maine rye and buckwheat were the common crops. Most people ate a bread called ‘injun loaf’, a combination of rye and corn.

Vegetables grown included spinach, rhubarb, several kinds of peas, beans as well as turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets and cucumbers. In more southerly climates than Maine artichokes were popular. A variety of herbs were also grown and had to be tied to the rafters and dried every fall.

Where are the potatoes? Although a new world crop (the Incas had thousands of varieties), potatoes did not get to the colonies until late in the 1700s. They quickly became a popular crop. And where are the tomatoes? Considered poisonous a hundred or so years earlier, they were still suspect.

All the vegetables were lumped together under the term garden sass.

Sugar and salt were both expensive. Salt especially was valuable and desperately needed for food preservation. Honey was the most common sweetener – ironic since bees are not native to the New World. They were brought over with the first colonists, however, and quickly became wild. The other common sweetener was from the sugar maple – maple sugar and syrup.

One final comment: the immigrants to this country brought their own eating habits with them so there were variations in what the colonists ate, depending on country of origin. The Scottish, for example, had to give up oatmeal porridge and switch to cornmeal mush for a time.

 

 

 

House keeping 1790s – Refrigeration

Another amazing invention, in my opinion, is refrigeration. We take it for granted but refrigeration, especially mechanical refrigeration, is pretty new.

Ice has been used to cool food for millennia. In 400 BC Persian engineers had already mastered the technique for storing ice. Ice was brought in from the mountains and stored underground in specially designed spaces. The ice was used to chill treats for royalty. (Of course )

In England during the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries in England low lying areas near the Thames were flooded in winter. The ice was stored in an ice house, insulated by sawdust, moss or something similar. As early as 1823 ice was imported from Norway and of course in the US, ice was transported from the North to the South, i.e from Maine to points as far away as South Carolina. This led to a new industry: the ice trade. Ice was cut from frozen ponds and streams and stored in ice houses before being shipped – eventually – around the world. As one would expect, the citizens of New York City and Philadelphia became huge consumers during their long hot summers.

The ice trade revolutionized the U.S meat, vegetable and fruit industries. It led to the invention of ice boxes; yes, wooden boxes lined with zinc or tin and other insulators like moss, sawdust or cork, with a box for ice. A drip pan underneath caught the melted water. The horse drawn wagons of ice and the ice man became a familiar sight. By 1907 81% of the households in New York City had ice boxes and they are widely credited with a drop of 50% of infant mortality in the summer.

Mechanical ice began to be produced in the late 1800s but was chancy and the process used toxic ammonia gas. Mechanical refrigerators did not go to the homes until the various fluorocarbons were developed.

Prior to refrigeration milk spoiled quickly; in fact, all perishable foods spoiled quickly. People had cold cellars to cool food and tried putting milk down the well to cool it. I read that cheese was an attempt to use milk before it soured.

So, to my way of thinking, the refrigerator is even more important than indoor plumbing.

Wolves

When I began researching my next book, I kept running into anecdotes about wolves and wolf attacks. The stories ranged in location from New York to Maine. Now interested, I began reading up on wolves. Most of the sources claimed that there were NO documented attacks by wolves on humans in North America. One source said that any genuine attacks in North America were carried out by wolf/dog hybrids. (Not sure how they could be so certain of this.)

People have been frightened of wolves for thousands of years. Ironic, I think, considering that they are related to dogs. (In my opinion, one’s life is not complete without a dog. But I digress.)

shelby snow

A quick look at fairy tales indicates fear of wolves. And there ARE documented accounts of wolves carrying off children or attacking lone people in Europe so the fear in valid. Even now, the sound of a wolf howl sends a chill down my spine.

But memoirs from my period describe attacks in specific detail, especially during hard winters. Lone cabins situated in the woods lit bonfires to keep the wolves away. And one account described the attack of a man – a hale and hearty man in the prime of life – by a pack of wolves. They were finally driven off by his wife wielding an axe.

Wolves hunt in packs that can number as many as twelve. They are apex predators and can certainly take down cattle and other livestock. In fact, the hatred of wolves for doing just this is so great that they were almost eradicated in the west. This, of course, had an unexpected consequence: the explosion of populations of deer and other game.

Wolf un-dominated - Wolves Wallpaper (19664762) - Fanpop

 

Paul Bunyon and logging

When I was a child my mother told me and my brothers stories of Paul Bunyon and his big blue ox Babe.  Re was a giant, as was his ox, and they had many adventures. There is even a statue to him in Bangor, Maine.

 

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine.JPG

In my childhood mind, he ranked right up there with Batman and Spiderman. Human, yes, but with extraordinary powers.

When I was researching my latest book, however, I discovered that Paul Bunyon represented a certain truth about the early American experience: the loggers or lumber men. In Maine, logging camps were set up in the woods and the massive trees were cut down with nothing more than human sweat and axes. Lumber was important for building, yes, but this was also the era of sailing ships and tall masts were a requirement.

In the spring the loggers would ‘drive’ the logs down one of the many rivers to Falmouth. The lumber drive would end in Falmouth with a celebration. (I’ll bet. Talk about dangerous work!)

If by chance you should visit Maine, you can see the art of log rolling on the road between Ellsworth and Acadia.

 

Politics

The recent election was acrimonious and ugly. People have unfriended erstwhile friends or just simply stopped talking with them.  While there may be unusual facets to this election, those in the past were not nice or gentle. I am including a section from my new book: The Devil’s Cold Dish, where I describe some of the unfortunate aftereffects of politics. Now this was in 1797 and I wrote this in 2014, so the emotional tenor is based solely on my research.

Turning her gaze to Rees, Jerusha said, “Your cheek is bleeding.”

“Yes, it is,” Rees agreed.

“Fetch me a bowl, Abby,” Lydia said. “And put some warm water in it, please.” She urged Rees into the side room and into a chair, despite his protests. “What happened?”

“Oh, Tom McIntyre had another customer. Mr. Drummond, a gentleman from Virginia by his accent. One of those land speculators. He was holding forth on George Washington and why he should have been impeached. I don’t know why people can’t leave the man alone.” With last fall’s election, John Adams had won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson the vice presidency. Washington had gone into retirement, a battered, aging lion.

“Was Mr. Drummond the one who did this?” She gestured to the cut upon his cheek.

“No,” Rees said. Drummond had already left when the argument exploded.

“I suppose you had to speak up,” Lydia said, her voice dropping with disappointment. “I love your sense of justice but I do wish you didn’t feel the need to fight every battle.” A former Shaker, she abhorred violence. Besides, she worried about the consequences, especially now after the serious injury to Sam.

Rees knew how she felt. He was trying to curb his temper, mostly because he wanted Lydia and his adopted children to be happy in Dugard. But so far he’d broken every promise to do better that he’d made to himself.

“We wouldn’t have a country without the president’s leadership during the War for Independence,” Rees said, hearing the defensiveness in his voice. After fighting under General Washington during the War for Independence, Rees would hear no criticism of the man who’d become the first president. Those who hadn’t fought, or who had only belonged to the Continental Army between planting and harvest, could not possibly understand what Washington had achieved.

Rees hesitated, fighting the urge to justify himself, but finally bursting into speech. “Mac and that Drummond fellow both favor Jefferson and the French. Drummond said that President Washington’s actions during the Jay affair smacked of treason. And when I said that the president had done his very best and that if anyone was guilty of treason it was John Jay, Mac said that the problem was that General Washington was a tired, senile old man.” He stopped talking.

When McIntyre had called Washington senile, Rees’s temper had risen and he had pushed the smaller man with all his strength. Since Mac probably weighed barely more than nine stone, he flew backward into the side of the mill. Flour from his clothing rose up at the impact, filling the air with a fine dust. That was when Zadoc Ward, Mac’s cousin, jumped on Rees and began pummeling him. Rees had already had a previous fight with the belligerent black-haired fellow who was usually found in the center of every brawl. Rees had caught Ward bullying Sam in the tavern and would have knocked him down if Constable Caldwell hadn’t broken up the fight and sent Rees on his way.

Rees permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. At the mill, he’d put down Ward like the mad dog he was. But by then Mac’s eldest son, Elijah, and some of the other mill employees had arrived. They’d grabbed Rees. In the ensuing altercation, Ward, who was looking for revenge, had hit Rees in the face and sent him crashing to the ground in his turn. But Rees had bloodied a few noses before that. He didn’t want to admit to Lydia that he had participated in the brawl just like a schoolboy, but he suspected she already knew. She frowned anxiously.

“Well, you can hardly blame Mr. McIntyre for his unhappiness,” she said, turning Rees’s face up to the light. “The British have continued capturing American ships. Wasn’t his brother impressed by the British into their navy? Anyway, it’s not only the French who were, and still are, angry about Mr. Jay’s treaty. You were the one who told me he was burned in effigy all up and down the coast. And that the cry was ‘Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay and damn everyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay.’”

“Yes,” Rees admitted with some reluctance.

“And now, with the Bank of England withholding payments to American vendors, Mr. McIntyre might go broke and lose his mill.”

“But none of this was President Washington’s fault,” Rees argued. “He has always striven for fairness. To be neutral in all things. Personally, I blame Mr. Hamilton.”

“I’m certain Mr. Jefferson bears some of the responsibility,” Lydia said in an acerbic tone. “He is so pro-French.” Rees wished he didn’t agree. Although he concurred with many of Jefferson’s Republican ideals, the vice president was pro-French and a slaveholder besides. And Rees could not forgive Jefferson for turning on Washington and criticizing him. “Discussing politics is never wise,” Lydia continued. “You know better. Passions run so high. And I see your argument resulted in fisticuffs.”

“Mr. McIntyre struck me first,” Rees said as Lydia dabbed at the cut above his eyebrow. The hot water stung and he grunted involuntarily. “You know how emotional he is.” Mac had spent his life quivering in outrage over something or other, and for all his small size he had been embroiled in as many battles as Rees. But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, Rees was beginning to wonder why Mac had been so eager to quarrel with him. They’d always been friends. Yet Mac had been, well, almost hostile.

“He can’t weigh much more than one hundred twenty or so pounds soaking wet,” Lydia added in a reproachful tone.

“I know. This,” he gestured to the cut, “came from his cousin, Zadoc Ward.” In fact Ward would have continued the fight, but Elijah had held him back. “I knocked him down, though,” Rees said in some satisfaction. Lydia did not speak for several seconds, although she gave his wound an extra hard wipe.

My Mother always said never discuss politics or religion. Failing a neutral topic, fall back on the weather. I find that advice hard to take – I’m sure it was just as difficult to follow it in the past as well.

Beignets and sugar

A beignet is a square of fried dough sprinkled – or in some cases dredged – in powdered sugar. These are a specialty in New Orleans and very good they are too.

But they are also a feature of French Canadian cooking and are eaten in Maine. Because of the Arcadians (who were expelled and went to Louisiana. Arcadians = Cajuns. Does anyone remember the poem Evangeline by Longfellow?) French cooking went as well. There it combined with some Spanish but mostly African cuisine to make Cajun food.

But surely beignets were not eaten with powdered sugar in the 1790s? Well, you can make powdered sugar from regular sugar with a mortar and pestle so yes, probably they were. However, beignets are delicious with regular sugar too. And sugar has been around for millenia. It was discovered/invented in India and went from there to the Middle East. In the Middle Ages it was considered a fine spice and was wildly expensive. The transformation of sugar cane (growing, harvesting and cooking down to the granulated state) is very labor intensive. But, by the early 1700s, plantations – worked by slaves – were already being set up in the West Indies.

From there, sugar cultivation went to North America, primarily southern Louisiana. The slave trade from Africa, already begun in the West Indies, went to the South of the colonies. One of the tour guides said that sugar cultivation – so labor intensive and so lucrative, was primarily responsible for the explosion of slavery. (I would guess cotton comes in second.)

From 1710 to 1770, sixty years, the per capita consumption of sugar went up five fold. Today we eat many tons.