The Fountain of Youth Found


The Harvard Shakers' Miraculous Spring Water


  History & Pictures


Site Visits: October / November 2002 & August 2003 by Daniel V. Boudillion






The longevity of Harvard Shaker Community was remarkable.  In the 1880’s, the average lifespan of a Harvard Shaker was just over seventy years of age.  It would be another 50 years before the general populace were to equal that.  A casual walk through the Harvard Shaker cemetery reveals an unusual number of long lived community members, and ages in the 90’s are not uncommon.


The Harvard Shakers were in no doubt as to the reason of their extraordinary health and longevity.  They had a special spring from which the entire community drank exclusively.  In fact, they claimed a 16% increase in lifespan from its waters alone. 


In 1855 a drought threatened the Harvard Community with failed wells.  Not far from the East Family village was a spring on the west side of Oak Hill.  Water from the spring was piped via a buried aqueduct for an entire mile to a reservoir on a hill behind Church Family, the main Shaker village.  From here, all the houses of the Church Family community were supplied with its waters – which were soon discovered to be of unusual purity.  The entire cost of the new aqueduct system was $5000.


1875 Map of Harvard Shaker Village - Aqueduct in Blue


The spring water was tested and found to have lower turbidity, and a higher chemical purity, than even that of the much renowned Poland Springs water:


Purity Analysis in Shaker Water Advertisement


Harvard Community Elder Elijah Myrick saw the business opportunity in this, and procuring a testimonial from the Massachusetts assayer, proceeded to bottle and sell the waters for many years as a Shaker commodity.   The bottled water was sold as Elijah Myrick’s Shaker Spring Water and proudly advertised as follows:





Shaker Medicinal Spring Water


Moses Smote the Rock. 

This Water smites Disease and Death.


It is a Cure for Bright's Disease of the Kidneys, Stone in the Bladder and Kidneys, Dyspepsia, Liver Complaint, Dropsy, Salt Rheum, and Scrofulous Humors, Loss of Appetite, General Debility, Indigestion, Constipation, and Diseases of the Urinary Organs, and an antidote for drugs and intoxicants.



Another original sign advertising the spring water is on display in the Shaker building at Fruitlands Museum.  (The curator felt $50 was a reasonable charge for a single digital photograph of it.  I disagree, and so it is not reproduced here.) 

   Field Investigation:

Today, much of the aqueduct has disappeared and most trace of its path is lost.  Route 2 has obliterated the East Family Shaker village.  With the help of Marc Sevigny and George Watkins, I located the spring at about the 400 foot elevation on the west side of Oak Hill, several hundred yards northeast of the site of the old East Family village.


1917 Fiske Warren Survey Map including Route of Aqueduct


The spring is in a marshy area on a small wooded plateau.  It is enclosed within an unusual looking stone and mortar spring house, with a locked iron door.  From a distance, it had the initial appearance of a large mossy boulder.  The spring house is in good repair, having been repaired (or it is rumored, reconstructed) in the 1970's by the Harvard Conservation Commission.  Prior to our October visit, we had attempted to locate the key to the spring house, but to no avail.


Shaker Spring House - Oak Hill


From the spring house, there was no discernable trace of the aqueduct or its route.  There did not appear to to be any run-off, and I wondered if the spring was still flowing.  However, in following the best conjectured path of the aqueduct, we were rewarded with finding a broken end of the piping spilling water into a small vernal pool.  The piping was about 3" outside diameter and cement lined, which tallied with Shaker records.  It was pleasing to find the spring waters still had a good rate of flow.  I noticed too, several minnows darting in and out of the broken pipe.


Broken Aqueduct Pipe - Spring Water Still Flowing


We followed the assumed path of the aqueduct several hundred feet from the break down to where Route 2 cut across its path.  There was nothing, however, to indicate its presence beyond the broken pipe end.  I tied a marker to a tree at the edge of Route 2 to indicate where it probably would have crossed.


Two weeks later I investigated the far side of Route 2 for any indication of the aqueduct.  As luck would have it, directly across from where the marker was tied, was the aqueduct cutting across a marsh in a long berm.  The berm was about four to six feet high, and had a stone culvert to allow ground water to pass beneath it.  This in itself proves that the berm is not an unrelated dam, but is the actual path of the pipeline.  Survey maps from the Route 2 construction also mark this berm as the pipeline.  The far end of the berm has a long trench running down its center indicating the piping had been dug out of that section. 



Aqueduct Berm & Aqueduct Berm showing where pipeline was removed



Culvert Under Aqueduct Berm & 1958 Survey Map of Berm


From here, the aqueduct plunged under the old route of Littleton Road, and then under Littleton Road proper.  About 50 feet east down the old route of Littleton Road, a second abandoned road branched off to the right, to be intersected (and obliviated) by Route 2.  This is actually the lower portion of Green Hill Road, this section of which was abandoned when Rte 2 bisected it in the late 1950's.  It was by means of this road that the Shakers had access to the the spring house. 



Old route of Littleton Road & old route of Green Hill Road


An old concrete highway marker with "WCH" engraved on it may be found on the west side of the abandoned section of Green Hill Road.  I take the engraving to mean: "Worcester County Highway", but I may not be correct. 


Highway Marker - Green Hill Road


I investigated the far side of Littleton Road, but this currently has several houses on it, and I found no indication of the aqueduct's path.  I spoke with the owner of the property through which it most likely passed, but he had no knowledge of it.


According to Shaker records, the aqueduct, once passing Littleton Road, traversed a large marsh and swamp.  The records note that each turn of the aqueduct was marked by an engraved slate marker, noted on old survey maps as a "stone monument."  There were four such monuments placed, two in the Village, and two in the swamp either side of Sheehan Road. 


Path of buried Aqueduct at Sheehan Road


The monuments in the Village have since disappeared.  The monument north of Sheehan Road was found by Mr. Bayard Underwood of The Shakerton Foundation Inc., who owns that parcel of land.  The monument to the south of the road is still in its original location deep in the swamp.  It is the only one of the four monuments left standing, no doubt due to its inaccessibility.  Its location may be seen from aerial photos at the right angle corner of a brook the Shakers straightened when they were farming the area.  It is not possible to access this area due to the increased water-table.  Removal of this or any such marker is a criminal offence under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, Section 94 & Section 95.



Slate Marker in Swamp



Location of Slate Marker in Swamp & Aerial View of Location


The full inscription of the swamp slate is hidden by the current level of the water-table.   It is probable that the obscured section of the inscription reads similarly to the formula of the Underwood slate.  The visible portion of the Swamp Slate is as follows:



To the Spring 2400 ft.

To Second Angle ...



As for the other Sheehan Road monument, Mr. Underwood has since removed it and marked its original location with a pipe.  The monument is now located as the centerpiece in the flower garden of his residence in Groton Massachusetts. 



Original and Current Location of the Underwood Marker

(the marker pipe is 10 feet to the left of the bush)


The stone monuments are quite interesting.  The Shakers, believing in the "waste not, want not" principle, used rejected partially carved headstone slates.  Mr. Underwood's slate is decorated with the willow tree and urn carving at the top which was the style of the time.  Where the funerary inscription would be, the Shakers carved location data.  The Underwood slate is inscribed as follows:


From First Angle 1372 Feet.

To 3rd Angle in Office Yard 1896 Ft.

Layed A. D. 1855.


There is also supposed to be a sketch of one of the makers in the published diary of a Harvard Shaker.  I have not been able to locate this sketch or confirm it's existence. 


From the swamp the aqueduct ran to the "3rd Angle" mentioned above, in what is now Mr. Erhart Muller's backyard.  At this location, as well as at the final Village marker to the north, there was a gate valve.  Both these markers and valves are long gone.  However, the buried pipeline of the aqueduct still remains.  Mr. Muller discovered this much to his surprise when he was having a pond dug in his backyard - the backhoe ruptured the buried pipe, filling the pond nicely. 


Location of "Office" Valve and Marker


The pipe is of singular construction.  It is cement, half inch thick wall, with a 2 inch inside diameter.  The outside diameter of the pipe is wrapped in a sheath of iron sheeting, riveted along the seam. 



1917 Fiske Warren Survey Map of Pipe & and Actual Section of Pipe


From the "Office Yard" the pipeline continued below ground through the backyards of the houses on the east side of the street.  A final turn - complete with gate valve and slate marker (now missing) - was behind the Taylor Shop.  From there it ran up the hill to its final destination.  A second pipe led from this marker point under the street to supply the other side of the road with the special waters. 


The gate valve locations not only regulated water flow, but were also exterior water distribution points - spigots where you could fill a pail.  All the houses of the Church Family community were said to be connected to this water supply.  Gate valves were located at the reservoir, the Taylor Shop, the Office, and where the berm met old Littleton Road.


1917 Fiske Warren Survey Map showing Reservoir shape


The aqueduct ended in a reservoir on the side of a low hill at the north end of Church Family village.  This reservoir was actually a large cistern within an octagonal wooden structure.  By 1962 the structure was in serious dilapidation.  The elderly lady who owned the land was concerned with the hazard it posed to children playing in the area, and had it filled in and bulldozed by a Mr. Sweeter.  There is presently nothing at the location to indicate that a structure or a large cistern ever stood there.  I have been unable to locate any pictures or contemporary drawings of this unusually shaped octagonal structure.  The only references to its shape are via remembrances of local residents and notations on the survey drawings made for Mr. Fiske Warren who bought Church Family village from the Harvard Shakers in 1918 for his Tahanto Enclave. 


(Fiske Warren established a number of such "enclaves" here and worldwide.  These communities were based on communal land ownership, but did not survive his death in 1938.  Click here for a picture of Gretchen & Rachel Warren, his wife and daughter.)

   A Second Shaker Spring:

It is probable that the Shakers got the idea of the aqueduct ready-made from an earlier (and cruder) water system they had set up previously in their East Family Village.  This spring and aqueduct system is on the same side of the hill as the newer spring house, and at approximately the same elevation, but several hundred yards further west along the hillside.  It consists of an uncapped stone well at a natural spring, and a trough leading down from the well some distance to the village. 



East Family Spring & Path of Aqueduct


The trough is a six inch deep and two foot wide depression that leads down from the well to the site of the East Family village.  I presume that piping of some sort, since removed, was laid in the trough.  Further details and pictures of this prototype water system may be seen at A Second Harvard Spring.


If anyone has further information regarding the Springs and its history, I would be pleased to hear from them.  My email address is:



Special thanks to Mark Magowan who repeatedly pulled old maps out of his hat.  Thanks to Bayard Underwood for letting me photograph the slate marker and the pipe section in the Shakerton Foundation collection.  Thanks as well to Marc Sevigny, George Watkins, Erhart Muller, Jonathan Feist, and Gary Boston for their assistance with this report.



The Shakerton Foundation

Groton Mass



The Shakerton Foundation Inc. was founded by Bayard Underwood in 1963 as a non-profit corporation under the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Its charter describes its purpose: to promote Shaker Studies, to record Shaker architecture and planning, to educate the public in Shaker culture by means of publications, lectures, exhibits, etc.


During the last forty years, exhibitions have been staged by the Foundation at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, State Street Bank in Boston, Wenham Historical Society, Boston Architectural Society, and Hancock Shaker Community Inc. to name a few.  Recent lectures have been given at Gardner Historical Society and Groton Public Library.


Acquisition of the Squannacook Sportsman's Club is a great move forward as it gives us a location, space for library and archives, a workshop, and meeting and exhibit space.   (March 2003)



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Copyright © September 2002 / August 2003 by Daniel V. Boudillion