BURRILLVILLE – It’s hard to guess just how long the peaceful little lake off Black Hut Road has been a recreation destination for northern Rhode Islanders.
But Burrillville Historical and Preservation Society President Betty Mencucci can tell you one fact that provides a clue: the lake was once known as Herring Pond, and herring haven’t been plentiful in that water for hundreds of years.
What’s clear is the lake has a vibrant history filled with beauty pageants, summer campouts, picnics, parties, slides on a toboggan – and even liquor raids during prohibition – and that it took a long and winding road to morph into the town-run facility beachgoers visit today.
And now, guests to the lake can get a free glimpse at its colorful past.
The Herring Pond Hotel Museum at Spring Lake Beach will open on Saturday, June 9 with an event at the facility’s Champlin Hall from 1 to 6:30 p.m. Guests will have the chance to gather and share their memories of the lake, while looking a photos documenting more than a century of its history.
Mencucci took on the project of learning that history ten years ago, and through old newspaper clippings and pictures, she’s amassed quite a story.
“I grew up half a mile from the lake on the other side,” Mencucci told NRI NOW this week. “That’s why I had such an interest in it.”
Framed photos she’s collected over the years now cover the walls of the small museum. The structure stands in the same spot where the Herring Pond Hotel was built sometime around the late 1800s. It later served as a barroom, and was used as a bathhouse starting in the 1950s.
The town demolished the original building in 2015 and constructed something of a replica, with the same look, style and dimensions of the old hotel. The project was completed last winter, and for the past year Mencucci has been working to ready the historical society’s small wing for the public.
With her abundant knowledge of the beach’s past, it was Mencucci who suggested creation of the museum in part of the property. The society had fought to keep the old structure standing, but she is now grateful her organization has been given some space.
“I’m just glad they replaced it with something that looks similar,” Mencucci said.
The mini-museum has been created in a 14 by 14 foot room facing the water. The rest of the building serves as a storage area for the beach’s various boats and equipment.
It will be open and free to guests whenever Spring Lake is open, creating one more attraction amid a lineup that already includes everything from pingpong and waterslides, to paddle board rental and a “penny” arcade.
Mencucci has given the museum a feel in keeping with the casual summer fun offered there, with easy-to-clean cement floors, in hopes that lake guests will visit the room. The new building is located at the far left of the property if you’re facing the water.
Among the collection of Spring Lake history are pictures taken as far back as the late 1800s, showing women in what – at least to the modern eye – appear to be mid-length dresses frolicking in the water.
“It shows the bathing suits they wore back then,” Mencucci said.
Another photo, taken in 1904, shows boats filled with people donning suits and elegant dresses, using parasols to hide from the hot summer sun during a business picnic.
The name, Mencucci says, was changed to Spring Lake somewhere around 1918.
“I think it sounded more attractive to bring people in,” she said.
The pictures memorialize the jitneys once used to carry guests from Woonsocket to the lake from where a trolley dropped them off a mile down the road. They also capture the wooden toboggan they road into the lake in the 1930s, and an “end of season party” in the 1950s showing guests in bathing suits made of wool that they rented from the facility.
Mencucci has also hung up old maps of the lake, and advertisements for the beach’s famous clam dinners – once held every Sunday.
She is also assembling a history of ownership, and soon, a flow chart will show north and south sides of they beach coming together. The town purchased the first half of what is now known as Spring Lake Beach in 1989, and began leasing the northern end from the state of Rhode Island in 1991, eventually getting the deed in the year 2000.
Long before, however, there was beach owner Samuel Mosley. Look for his grave in the small cemetery you pass on the way in from the parking lot.
Mencucci has also saved some of the pieces from the original hotel, using its old wooden beams and railings to add to the space.
“This was a big, booming place to come,” she said.
A fact, taken from a newspaper of the time, tells of just how big: on July 17, 1903 an estimated 1,500 people visited the lake.
And as for those herring the lake was once named for? Mencucci will tell you that the fish haven’t been able to get to the area since dams were built along the Blackstone River in the 1700s.
A photo of Mencucci’s own mother, Mabel Hopkins, also graces the walls, one of many items that creates a feeling of nostalgia for the woman who has worked to preserve the beach’s history. She herself recalls the giant slide that once ran into the water, the diving boards, and the fun she had during visits to the beach at night.
“We played hide and seek beneath the wharfs,” she said. “The town took out all the fun stuff.”
A photograph shows when the beach had its own strip, with businesses including Hood’s Ice Cream.
“People have fond memories of when the beach was like this,” Mencucci said.
She’s still looking to collect more of those memories, and museum visitors are invited to write down their own, which she hopes to collect and later assemble into a book.
The museum photographs are just a sampling of her large collection, and she’s seeking more of those as well. Those with old pictures are asked to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll make copies so that owners can keep their originals.
“It’s nice that the town let us have this, so people can come in and enjoy their memories of Spring Lake,” she said.
The Grand Opening event on Saturday will include a slideshow with more of those photos, starting at 2 p.m., followed by a chance for attendees to talk about their memories of Spring Lake and visit the new museum. Admission costs $3 for BH&PS members or $5 for non-members, and guests must register in advance by calling 568-8449.