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Unforgettable, antique Rhode Island

Email|Print| Text size + By David Lyon and Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondents / November 16, 2003

CHEPACHET, R.I. -- Chepachet is a spunky village. Established in 1701 on the river of the same name, it survived a 1907 fire and an 1867 flood -- and the dubious distinction of killing the only elephant in North America.

While other communities might hope that such an event would be lost in the mists of time, not Chepachet, the main village of the Town of Glocester. Coming into town on Route 44 west, called the Putnam Pike, a gray statue of ''Betty, the Learned Elephant" sits on the lawn in front of the red brick Town Hall. An itinerant beast led from town to town between Maine and the Carolinas in the 1820s, she was described in a handbill of the time as ''an Exhibition of a natural curiosity."

According to the town history published in 1976, Betty was noted for ''her gentleness, which she displayed by carrying any daring participant in her trunk." But as Betty lumbered out of town on the evening of May 24, 1826, six local men ambushed her from the upper level of the village center mill. A first round of buckshot barely penetrated her hide, but five musket shots laid her low in the middle of the village bridge.

If you hanker to read more about Betty and other tidbits of local lore (Chepachet, for example, had the United States' first bank failure, in 1809), librarians cheerfully fetch the three town history books from the reserve collection. For a more tangible history lesson, we strolled along Main Street (the segment of Putnam Pike in the village center) from the library and Town Hall to the white clapboard Freewill Baptist Church.

Twentieth-century additions, vinyl siding, and other architectural impurities disguise the 19th- and even 18th-century origins of many of the buildings that now house lawyers, a private investigator, and a beauty salon along with the antique shops that have become the commercial lifeblood of so many New England villages.

Brown & Hopkins Country Store opened in 1809, making it, according to a proclamation of the Rhode Island Legislature that hangs inside the front door, ''the oldest general store in the United States in continuous operation." While other New England stores claim greater age, none we have ever visited actually feels as old. Tables, chests, and display cases turn the shop into something of a labyrinth. It can be hard to get past the glass case of penny candy inside the door to examine the simulated milk paint and then wend your way to the gingham curtain fabrics in the back room. Well-worn, wide pine planks line the floors, and some of the smaller doorways are framed at crazy angles, as if by a drunk carpenter. Brown & Hopkins sells new and used goods, and the upstairs rooms, laid out like country life magazine spreads, have both.

Located where the Putnam Pike crosses the Chepachet River, the village developed as a natural commercial center for northwest Rhode Island. Long before Ann Evans opened the general store in 1809, the village had a trading post, which was probably located in the rear of the building that now houses the Town Trader antique shop. Though vinyl siding makes it hard to tell, the structure is among the oldest in the village, with the front dating from around 1780, the rear from 1730. Marie and Edward Brennan just purchased the building in May, and are busy with restoration.

The most obvious sign of age is the flueless brick fireplace that Edward has half-exposed from beneath a later sheath of paneling. As Marie pulled back the tarp to show us the brickwork, a young local couple -- fresh from their own house restoration -- asked eagerly, ''Did you find the shoe?"

''Yes, but not in the fireplace," Marie said. ''It was in the eaves leading to the upstairs." She explained that hiding a shoe in the wall was a local custom for warding off malevolent spirits, giving ghosts the boot, so to speak.

Stone Mill Antiques & Design is Chepachet's largest antiques dealer. It occupies a sturdy 1814 mill building, one of the few not destroyed in the village's greatest calamity. The Freshet of 1867 (still written with a capital F) was a flash flood on Feb. 10 that followed a day of torrential rains. More than a foot of snow and about a foot and a half of ice on area ponds gave way and swept through town, washing away trees, buildings, boulders, and even a small island. But Sayles Stone Mill survived (minus the third floor) and continued to produce woolens until 1969.

The cavernous mill rooms feature large antiques like banquet-size dining tables, a massive stuffed moose head, freestanding statuary. Across Main Street, the Old Post Office features a lot of mid-20th-century kitchen collectibles and glassware. The building first held a store run by a gristmill operator who had lost his business in the Freshet. Around 1900 it became the Post Office, but has reverted to its mercantile roots.

Perhaps because Betty was on our minds, we couldn't help noticing the preponderance of elephant memorabilia in the antique shops. It seems Chepachet is happily captive to its past. Many homes feature plaques identifying their dates of construction and delineating names otherwise known only from gravestones on Acore's Hill. It is as if the village has redeemed its 1826 pachydermicide by emulating the elephant: Never forget.

At the north end of the village, Chestnut Hill Antiques occupies a circa-1835 home set on a large lot framed by a massive butternut tree. In classic New England fashion, no one goes in the front door here. You have to enter the shop from the back porch, through what must have once been the summer kitchen. Dealer Ed Grasso has a good stock of costume jewelry, a big industry in the state that calls itself the jewelry capital of the world. The home's most famous resident was Albert Potter, a Civil War surgeon who returned to practice here. An avid amateur photographer, Potter chronicled Chepachet and its environs at the end of the 19th century. Most of his original glass plates reside at the Glocester Heritage Society, but Grasso directed us to the Purple Cat Restaurant, where prints of some of Potter's old village scenes hang above the wooden booths.

The village's most venerable eatery, however, is the Stagecoach Tavern. Built around 1800, the tavern played a central role in Chepachet's remaining historical footnote. In 1842, Rhode Island split over the issue of universal male suffrage. Protesting the provision that only landowners with property worth at least $134 could vote, the People's Coalition elected Thomas William Dorr as governor. Dorr made his headquarters in the tavern and called for the Legislature to convene there on July 4. Unamused, the legitimate governor, Samuel Ward King, called out the militia, who fired one shot through the keyhole of the tavern, wounding a Dorr supporter. Dorr made his last stand on Acore's Hill -- where his supporters vanished without a shot when they heard the militia was coming.

The rebels also left quite a tab at the tavern, but the current owners don't hold a grudge. The kitchen specializes in beef dishes that can be ordered ''Dorr style." That means your prime rib or filet mignon comes with sauteed mushrooms and onions, ''just like Governor Dorr liked it." It figures they would know that. Chepachet's a stickler for historical detail.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon live in Cambridge.

Getting there

Chepachet is the principal village of Glocester, R.I. It is located at the junction of Route 44 (Putnam Pike) and Routes 100 and 102. From Boston, follow Interstate 95 south to Interstate 295 (exit 4). From I-295, take exit 7B to Route 44 west in Greenville. The center of Chepachet is approximately 8 miles.

What to do

Glocester Manton Free Public

Library

1137 Putnam Pike

401-568-6077

Open Monday-Wednesday and Friday

10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 10-3.

Brown & Hopkins Country Store

1179 Putnam Pike

401-568-4830

Open Thursday-Saturday 11-4,

Sunday noon-5.

The Town Trader Antiques

1177 Putnam Pike

401-568-8800

Open Wednesday-Friday 11-4,

Saturday-Sunday 11-5.

Stone Mill Antiques & Design

1169 Putnam Pik

401-568-9183 or 401-568-6662

www.stonemillantiquesdesign.com

Open Saturday and Sunday 10-4:30 or by appointment.

Old Post Office Antiques

1178 Putnam Pike

401-568-1795

Open Sunday noon-5 and Thursday through Saturday 11-5. Also open Monday 11-5, May throughDecember.

Chestnut Hill Antiques

1 Victory Highway

401-568-4365

Open variable hours; call in advance.

Where to stay

White Rock Motel

750 Putnam Pike

401-568-4219

Lovingly maintained classic 1949 motel east of the village center features

refrigerator, microwave, and cable TV in every room. Open year-round.

Doubles $60.

Where to eat

The Purple Cat Restaurant

4 Stafford Yard

401-568-7161

www.thepurplecat.com

Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Launched as a 13-stool diner in 1929 but greatly expanded over the years. Serves a diner-like lunch menu and an evening menu of American grill and pasta. Most dinner entrees range from $12-$16.

Stagecoach Tavern Restaurant

1157 Putnam Pike

401-568-2275 or 401-568-9155

www.stagecoachtavern.com

Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday. Atmospheric dining in authentic early Federal room with a mix of Colonial and Arts & Crafts styling. Roast chicken and pork augment a big beef menu and good selection of seafood. Most dinner entrees range from $12-$19.

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