Glocester documentary reveals town as major player in R.I. history

Glocester documentary reveals town as major player in R.I. history

It seems an odd concept to us today to think of Glocester as the hub of Rhode Island, a thriving commercial and farming center whose prosperity drew residents from all walks of life, a place where gold was discovered and a smart elephant shot to death for mysterious reasons.

But indeed, along with Newport and Providence, Glocester was one of the largest settlements in the area in the 1700s and part of the 1800s. "It included all of Burrillville and was the third biggest town in the state," says local historian Betty Mencucci.

Route 44 or Putnam Pike, first known as the Great Country Road, was an important transportation artery that helped define the town, and until locomotives came to Burrillville later in the 19th century and then highways in the 20th, Glocester reigned supreme as the premiere community in northern Rhode Island.

Glocester's past prominence comes to life again in the video history produced by Betty Mencucci and her husband, Carlo Mencucci, titled "West of the Seven Mile Line." The Mencuccis aired part of the new video at a recent session of Ranger Talks, the popular history lecture series held Sunday afternoons at the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket.

The 45-minute DVD shown Feb. 24 is the first half of the second of a three-part series on Glocester's history by the Mencuccis. They are long-time local historians, specializing in northwestern Rhode Island where Mrs. Mencucci is president of the Burrillville Historical Society, and it has taken them five years to put together this video series. Edna Kent, of the Glocester Historical Society, was a key collaborator.

As is always the case, Betty Mencucci said, she was drawn further into Glocester's history than she planned once she began working on the project. She and her husband began putting together video documentary histories in 2000 with one for Burrillville; since then, they've done a second about Burrillville and a two-disc history of Manville village in Lincoln in 2003.

Mencucci told The Valley Breeze & Observer in a phone interview that she always wishes someone would just hand her a written history of the town she's documenting, but of course that never happens. "Once I get into the history, I end up writing it and I can't write it unless I understand it, so then I've got to study it," she said.

She searches old books, documents, historical records and newspapers, hunts down historic photos she can scan and copy, confers with other local historians like Edna Kent and Clifford Brown, and the couple even manage to visit the actual sites where history happened, such as Civil War battle scenes in Virginia and Pennsylvania, shown in the second part.

Glocester's video history was supposed to be one DVD volume, but it has turned into three because of "so much detail," Mencucci said. "It just kind of blossoms out as you learn more and more."

Here are a few high points of the second part of "West of the Seven Mile Line."

A Golden Past

Gold was discovered in the Durfee Hill woods in the 1700s, with pieces of gold-bearing quartz first documented in an April 1738 deed. A man whose name was Walton lived near the site of Ponaganset Reservoir, then called Walton's Pond, and he worked the gold mine, but died before he ever learned if the material he mined was valuable.

In the late 1890s, Albert Potter and Walter A. Read were involved in the mining operation, which produced silver as well as gold. A crude 12-foot wide hole in the earth served as entry to the mine, which employed six men and whose deepest shaft burrowed 103 feet into the ground. Attempts to re-open the mine in later years failed and by the 1970s all the mine shafts had been filled in and permanently closed. There are no reports that anyone ever struck it rich on Glocester gold.

Death at the Bridge

In May 1826, the town was abuzz because an exciting new exhibit was coming to Chepachet - Betty the Learned Elephant, a 12-year-old pachyderm that was part of a traveling show. Chepachet was the chosen site for the exhibition because it was the center of commerce in northern Rhode Island. A tent was erected near the Cyrus Cook Inn (now Tavern on Main) where, for an adult admission fee of 12.5 cents, people could watch as the "magnificent beast" performed stunts, said a brochure of the time. "Little Bett" weighed more than 6,000 pounds and was 7 feet tall.

As the animal and her keepers were leaving town around midnight, they approached the Chepachet Bridge where, hiding inside the nearby Hawkins Grist Mill, were two men with loaded guns and two more serving as lookouts. Shots rang out and Betty lay dead. Her carcass was taken to the town tannery and her hide eventually sent to a museum. The townspeople were outraged.

Six men were later charged and fined $500 each, a large sum for that era, but motive for the shooting remains unknown. Some say it was done for pure love of mischief, while others say the shooters wanted to disprove the claim of Betty's owner that her hide was so tough it could withstand bullets.

Washed Away

In February of 1867, the weather in Glocester took a nasty turn when the temperature that had been below zero dramatically rose, leading to a freshet (flood resulting from a spring thaw). With terrific bursts of thunder and lightning, four to five inches of rain fell within a mere six hours, causing the Chepachet River to overflow its banks. Dams including the one at Peckham's Grist Mill gave way and some grist mills were washed away forever. A dye house was damaged and Waterman's Cabinet and Casket Shop disappeared for good.

The Boys of Glocester

Historian Robert Grandchamp tells the tale of 150 sons of Glocester who marched off to the Civil War, with one in three never to return. Under the leadership at various times of Gen. Ambrose Burnside of Rhode Island and Glocester's own Capt. Walter Read, a lawyer who ran a dry goods store, local infantry divisions marched off to war. Many local soldiers left in the summer of 1862 after President Lincoln asked for 300,000 new volunteers.

In that summer, William A. Coman, an apple farmer who lived on Snake Hill Road and had a farm near where Barden Family Orchard is today, left his wife and five children to join the war as a volunteer wagoneer. He fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia and while storming a hill known as Marye's Heights - when he and his fellow soldiers were within 50 yards of their object - Coman was hit by cannon fire.

He was hospitalized, died of his wounds Dec. 19, 1862, and was buried in a marked grave in Fredericksburg. His widow, who did not remarry, for many years relentlessly tried to find out what happened to her husband. Because records were kept in Fredericksburg and she had no way to communicate there from Rhode Island back in those days, sadly his widow never was able to find out what happened to him.