New Hampshire Tidbit: Who Let the Shaker Cows Out of the Barn?

“Perfect Seventh” of Canterbury (NH) Shaker Village, a thoroughbred Holstein cow.

In 1863 the cows of Canterbury New Hampshire’s Shaker Village would have been “kept in one of forty-six stalls, in two rows facing each other, with a wide passage between them. Each animal, has its name and place, and it trained to know and take it; and they all walk in and out with the regularity of a file of soldiers, and by one motion of a lever, the whole row is stalled or released.”

1849 Pen and ink, and watercolor diagram of the South part of Shaker
Village Canterbury NH. (Cow Barn is #19 just under the title with brown
tinting). Peter Foster, artist. From the Library of Congress.

The process of milking by the sisters is…an interesting performance, with so large a number, where everything is so clean. As a visit to the dairy makes you wish that you might have all your milk and butter and cheese from the Shakers. Plenty of room and space in all their buildings and apartments, is a marked characteristic. The Shakers keep no swine, for they abstain from pork….The law of love extends to their dumb beasts; no punishment is allowed, and all their animals are kind and gentle, even with strangers. A large, fine Devon bull seemed so gentle and could be approached and fondled, with as much safety as the cows.” [from Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics October 31, 1863].

The Holstein Herd Registries are replete with mention of various sires, dams and offspring of the Canterbury Shaker’s herd. One of them, “Perfect Seventh” is shown in a post card offered in this article. Their cattle provided food, dairy products, and income when extra ones were sold to the public. On November 5, 1885 the New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette of Concord NH contained the following advertisement: “Cattle for Sale at Shaker Village N.H.Six cows with calf by Sampson, a full-blooded Holstein Bull; 1 Farrow Cow; 1 full-blood Durham Yearling Heifer; 1 full-blood Durham and Holstein Yearling Heifer; 2 Grade Durham Heifers; 2 Grade Durham Yearling Steers; 3 half-blood Holstein and Durham Steers (one matched pair very nice); 1 full-blood Durham six months old Bull Calf. — BENJ. H. SMITH”

The Holstein breed seen in my photograph was a Dutch breed of cattle. As late as 1810 the Hon. William Jarvis of Weathersfield Vermont had imported some from Virginia. The Durham breed was one of the earliest imported to New England in the 1600s. It was not just the Shaker cows that were interesting. In fact the Shaker’s Cow Barn was extraordinary in its design and efficiency. For those of you who are not interested in architecture and the building of a better barn, you can skip to the genealogical portion of this article.


Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Miller-Swift, and Elmer R Pearson, photographer. Shaker Church Family Barn & Granary, Shaker Village Road, Canterbury, Merrimack County, NH. Documentation Compiled After, 1933. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The Weekly Union newspaper of Manchester NH on August 16, 1854 reported: “In Enfield, N.H., the Society of Shakers, seed growers, horticulturists, and farmers, have projected and have in good progress a granite barn, two hundred and fifty feet in length by fifth in width, for the accommodation of fifty choice cows–to be roofed with slates from Wales. Mr. Henry Elkins, the designer and architect, estimates the cost at $15,000 and gives the following description of it: The location and arrangements of this barn edifice are in many respects peculiar, and in all respects admirable. Its outer walls are of stone and its roof of slate. It is located across a gentle ravine, opening from bank to bank; and is so arranged that teams laden with hay or straw may enter at either cable, precipitate the load to the bay below, pass on, and make their egress at the other end. Such a situation has enabled them to extend a cellar its whole length for the reception of the manures, both solid and liquid; which are kept from filtration or otherwise escaping downwards by a plank floor laid upon a stratum of clay wrought as a bed of mortar.

The descent of the ground upon the back side of the barn renders ingress and egress to and from the cellar convenient and easy for carrying pond mud and manure. The cows will be tethered all upon the south side of the barn and in one continuous longitudinal stable sixteen feet in width with walls plastered inwardly with lime mortar, and leaving a walk behind the gutters, of four feet in width, and a corridor or passage between the cribs and mows upon the north side, (which mow preserves the warmth of the barn throughout) sufficiently wide for a horse and cart to pass; which is often convenient when feeding with green food. The scaffolds above the cows are a best depository for litter, which is let down through a trap door in the rear of the cows; and also, when partitioned into rooms, serve a place for meal, grain, and also a herd’s man office. All these arrangements renders it perhaps the most convenient and it is undoubtedly the most expensive barn in America. Its height to the eaves, upon the back side, is to be 34 feet; stables eight feet, (including timber,) and scaffolds, sixteen feet. Flooring for teams framed four feet below the eaves.”

Everything about this barn allowed for quick work, possibly in order to free the Shaker’s time up for worship and other tasks. It was a big deal. Big enough that in 2014 David Starbuck, Professor of Anthropology at Plymouth State University and Shaker expert gave a presentation on this barn at Canterbury Shaker Village. Sadly on Friday, August 10, 1973 this 2-1/2 story U-shaped barn burned to the stone foundation. At the time it was estimated that it would take $500,000 to replace, and so it wasn’t. In addition to the barn some Shaker tools and a one-of-a-kind window sash maker was destroyed.

I was a bit intrigued to see the name of Henry Elkins as the builder and architect of the barn, but then was having difficulty learning more about him. I narrowed down the possibilities to two men who have close ties to each other and some synchronicity.

Henry Elkins of North Hampton who married Miriam H. Colby, and his first cousin James H. Elkins (middle name maybe Henry?) who was living at Shaker Village in 1850. Their fathers were brothers. James eventually left the Shaker community and married Martha Leavitt. Henry and James H. Elkins shared grandparents, Henry & Mary (Moore) Elkins. Both men died as the result of a fall–Henry fell from a scaffold in his barn. James fell down stairs and died of internal injuries. But which of these two was the designer of the Shaker Cow Barn? Perhaps one of my readers knows.


Henry Elkins, Jr. born 21 Oct 1802 Hampton NH, died 19 Jan 1871 North Hampton NH
– son of Jeremiah & Mary (Batchelder) Elkins
– grandson of Henry & Mary (Moore) Elkins
– married 13 June 1835 at Amesbury MA to Miriam H. Colby
– 3 children
-He died after he fell from a scaffold in his barn
[Bachelder genealogy, p. 144]

1850 US Census > NH > Rockingham > North Hampton
Henry Elkins 48 2700 NH
Merriam Elkins 48 MA
Mary Elkins 14 NH
Lydia Elkins 12 NH
John H Elkins 9 NH
Sarah Elkins 6 NH
John Colby 52 NH
James H. Elkins born 1821 Hampton NH, died 13 Oct 1905 Amesbury MA; m. Nov 1846 Exeter NH to Martha Leavitt.
– son of Jonathan Elkins & Joanna Drew
– grandson of Henry Elkins & Mary Moore
– died after he fell down stairs, from internal injuries
In 1850 US Census: 28 M NH farmer [b abt 1822 NH]
living in Enfield, Shaker Village

*Additional Reading*

Colonial Williamsburg: Milking Devons

Colonial Exports and Imports

Google Books: The Life and Times of William Jarvis

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4 Responses to New Hampshire Tidbit: Who Let the Shaker Cows Out of the Barn?

  1. Ewan says:

    Great post and nice pictures. I particularly like the image of the gentle Devon bull…

  2. I really enjoyed reading about the Shakers’ Cadillac of barns! It must have been quite a marvel.

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