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Mencuccis bring town’s colorful past to life

November 27, 2011

This undated photo is of one of Glocester’s first trolley cars, a subject featured in the follow-up to ‘West of the Seven Mile Line.’

GLOCESTER – Working from their home studio in neighboring Burrillville, hobby videographers Carlo and Betty Mencucci have just finished a follow-up to their well-received 2009 documentary on the town’s history, “West of the Seven Mile Line.”
While the first installment covered the town’s earliest days, this one touches on the most colorful events of the 1700s through the late 1800s, from the tragic saga of “Betty the Learned Elephant” to the discovery of gold in the woods of Durfee Hill.
The husband-and-wife team behind Log Cabin Studios say they spent “hundreds of hours” putting together the 90-minute documentary, going to great lengths – literally – to bring the town’s story to life.
To illustrate the stories of the local boys who fought in the Civil War, they followed their footsteps from the graveyards of Antietum to Fredericksburg.
To tell the tale of Betty the Learned Elephant, which predates photography, they used watercolor paintings originally intended for a history book that was never published, and they shot fresh footage of real elephants at Southwick’s zoo in Mendon.
Rare photos rekindle many other milestone of the town’s evolution, like the arrival of the trolley.
“Every time we do one of these we get new equipment and the results are better,” says Betty Mencucci. “People are going to be surprised. It has a real professional look to it.”
Viewers can see for themselves when “West of the Seven Mile Line – Episode 2” premieres at the Glocester Senior Center, 1210 Putnam Pike, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m., in a program sponsored by the Glocester Heritage Society. Two more showings are scheduled for the following day at the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church, across the street, at 1 and 3:30 p.m. All are free and open to the public, though a donation will be accepted at the church showings.
Both retirees – Betty was a computer technology teacher and Carlo a school facilities manager – the couple lives on a farm near Spring Lake in Burrillville. She and her husband are also active in the town’s historical society (she’s the president) – an obsession that evolved into producing historical video documentaries about area towns and villages, starting with their own, about a decade ago. In addition to the “Seven Mile Line” couplet, the Mencuccis already have two documentaries about Burrillville and another about Manville under their belt.
“I do all the editing and writing and Carlo does all the stuff that makes things work,” says Mencucci. “I call him the video and sound engineer. I’m the narrator.”
Although the Mencuccis sell copies of the videos at various locations and sometimes seek donations at public showings, their goal isn’t to turn a profit, but tell stories.
Some of the vignettes included in Episode 2 may be familiar to Glocester residents, probably none moreso than the oft-told tale of Betty the Learned Elephant. A plaque on the concrete span that crosses the Chepachet River on Route 44 marks the untimely demise of the jungle giant in 1826. Naturally, the crossing has come to be known as Elephant Bridge.
But Mencucci says that the research she and her husband have devoted to even these well-traveled stories has yielded something closer to factual history than local lore. As the story goes, Betty was the main event of a rinky-dink circus that came to town from time to time, delighting young and old with her amazing feats of academic prowess. Some may have heard that she was unintentionally killed during a test of the crackpot theory that an elephant’s hide was too thick to be pierced by a bullet.
The Mencuccis say their research reveals a far less excusable example of what can only be called an an outright case of animal assassination. There was no motive to speak of, unless you count a senseless outburst of pure malice.
“We’ve delved into it deeper than what you normally see in the newspapers,” says Mencucci.
Fewer residents are probably familiar with the discovery of gold in a swath of what is now the Durfee Hill Management Area, a tract of state forest just east of the Connecticut line.
The mini-rush of the 1700s spawned a network of deep shafts and conveyor belts that was worked by a series of speculators for decades. Yes, says Mencucci, those ball-peen pioneers coaxed some glitter from that hill, but in the long run theirs was a fool’s errand. The pit was never profitable and it was eventually abandoned to wither in the zero-carat dust of time.
The title of the documentary, by the way, was inspired by the phrase once used to describe a region of woodsy land that included Burrillville, Glocester and Foster. From a certain vantage point near the Port of Providence, before the three towns were incorporated as distinct entities, the area was known as the portion of the state “west of the seven mile line.”
Some called the region “the Outlands,” a place considered “a howling wilderness with rocky soil worthless to cultivate,” according to a history of the day.
In addition to improbable accounts of slain elephants and a glimpse of riches in Durfee Hill, the new installment also covers the first Old Home Day, the arrival of trolleys and the roots of the venerable Ancients and Horribles Parade, a Fourth of July tradition that endures into the present day. The production also features some stunning aerial shots, scenes of early homesteads and old schoolhouses, churches, as well as interviews with some of Glocester’s notable personalities.
DVDs of the production will be offered for sale after the showings at the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church, and will also be available at the Glocester Heritage Society’s Job Armstrong Store and The Town Trader, both on Main Street in Chepachet.

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