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Mount Lebanon HerbFest Unveils the Secrets of Shaker Swamp

Rural Intelligence Road TripsFrom the Native Americans to the Shakers, from the Tilden Pharmaceutical Company (1824–1960) to today’s alternative-healing practitioners and locavore chefs, the residents of New Lebanon, NY, have benefited for centuries from the town’s greatest natural resource: herbs.

“Austerlitz has blueberries, West Stockbridge has zucchinis, and we have herbs!” says Fiona Lally, president of the Lebanon Valley Business Association (LVBA) and the force behind the Mount Lebanon HerbFest, which debuts on Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10.

A full schedule of herb-related activities is set for Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, at Darrow School, located on the grounds of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. Family-friendly offerings include workshops on using herbs in food, drink, tinctures, soap, and creams; garden tours; cooking demonstrations; a “family forage walk” and Native American storytelling with Flying Deer Nature Center educators; and talks on local herb history, including the Tilden company’s rise and fall, and the herb-based Thomsonian medicinal system used by the Shakers. Chefs Consortium, a group of Hudson Valley chefs dedicated to farm-to-table dining, will serve an herb-themed lunch using local ingredients (reservations are required).

“We have so much local talent who can speak to the role of herbs in food, health and healing, home care, gardening, and local history,” says Lally, who hopes this will be the first edition of an annual event.

Rural Intelligence Road Trips Local businesses are also getting into the act, with a dozen restaurants and shops in New Lebanon offering herb-themed events throughout the day on Saturday, ranging from a wine tasting at Duncan’s Wines to specials on herbal spa treatments at Deb’s Shear Perfection. Linda Hursa, LVBA treasurer and HerbFest organizer, will offer herbal cookies at her florist shop, Angel’s Trumpet Flowers; she’ll also teach a workshop on making living wreaths on Saturday. “The Business Association wanted to create a destination event that people from all over would seek out,” Hursa says of the fesitval. “All this interest [in herb-related topics] began surfacing at the same time, and came together as something we could showcase.”

The primary source of the area’s rich herbal heritage is the 240-acre Shaker Swamp, fed by the town’s natural thermal springs. Columbia Hall, a spa with accommodations for 400, was built around the springs in 1792, and hosted the likes of Charles Dickens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Quincy Adams throughout the 1800s. While tourism declined around the turn of the century, the calcium-rich waters continued to flow, nurturing the nearby wetlands and creating an environment conducive to relatively rare herb species, such as purple avens (an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic), mayapple (containing podophyllin, which has been tested as a cancer drug), and blue cohosh (used to induce labor and ease arthritis pain).

The swamp was familiar ground for the Mohican tribe, who shared their knowledge of herb lore with the Shakers when the sect settled in Mount Lebanon in 1780. At its height in the mid-1800s, the Shakers’ seed and herb business was producing 100,000 pounds of dried herbs and several thousand pounds of extracts annually.

Rural Intelligence CommunityThe next to profit was local resident Elam Tilden (father of Samuel Tilden, the 25th governor of New York and the Democratic candidate in the disputed presidential election of 1876). The elder Tilden used herbal extracts as the basis of his business venture, founded in 1824, which became the first pharmaceutical company in the nation.

“Just about every major success in New Lebanon was built around herbs, and all those factors are still here—the spring, the swamp, and the knowledge of what to do with herbs are all here in abundance,” Lally says.

A case in point: Claudia and Conrad Vispo of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program have discovered some 79 species of medicinal herbs in the swamp and the fertile forest surrounding it, as well as a number of rare butterflies and dragonflies. The pair will lead a two-hour walk through the wetlands on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. The swamp is also the focus of Ted Timreck’s 2008 documentary, Medicinal Wetlands, which will be shown throughout HerbFest on Sunday. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Shaker Swamp Conservancy is investigating possibilities for making the swamp more accessible to the public, perhaps by building a boardwalk through the acreage to allow herb and butterfly enthusiasts to hike through the preserve without threatening the swamp’s complex ecology.

“It’s a place that hasn’t felt the heavy impact of people in quite a while, so it’s like stepping back in time,” says Claudia Vispo. “It’s a little paradise.” —Tresca Weinstein

Mount Lebanon HerbFest
110 Darrow Road, New Lebanon, NY
June 9 & 10

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