SOMERS, N.Y. - Like Old Bet the elephant, the effort Lynn Tomlinson put into making an animated flick referencing the story of Somers’ emblem animal was massive.
The Baltimore resident, using a stop-motion technique, painstakingly “painted” each scene in “The Elephant’s Song” with plasticine modeling clay and then photographed it digitally.
She used her fingers, a pencil eraser, and small clay modeling tools to alter it a minuscule amount, and then took another picture, and another, etc.
About three hours of this mammoth undertaking translated into just one second of screen time.
The process, says Tomlinson, a prizewinning interdisciplinary artist, is both “creative and destructive” because the original images are changed beyond recognition as they are animated.
Peekskill Film Festival
The seven-minute 38-second short will be screened at this weekend’s Peekskill Film Festival at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater. It will be featured in the “New York State of Mind” block.
The Elephant’s Song made its world debut at the Maryland Film Festival this past spring and is to be shown in parts as far away as Finland.
Like lots of circus lore, the story about one of the first elephants in America has had many different iterations over time.
Tomlinson’s version, which she co-wrote with son Sam Saper, is billed as “the sad but true story of Old Bet, the only elephant in America from 1805-1816, and the menagerie that started the American circus.”
It is narrated—in a mournful ballad written by Saper—by the elephant’s canine pal, an old farm dog.
It opens with a scene of pachyderms tenderly examining what looks to be the bleached bones of an ancestor and traces the history of the mastodon’s cousins’ arrival in America. It also touches on the ivory trade, so sensitive viewers should be prepared for images of elephants being culled for their tusks.
It explores the morphing of traveling menageries—which could contain everything from pigs, dogs, and horses to ostriches, tigers, and elephants—into the modern circus and wraps up with a beautifully realized image of a herd of elephants walking away with quiet dignity under a blazing orange sky. That final scene was animated by Tomlinson’s daughter, Lucy.
Rich with history, lore
According to a Somers Historical Society account published in this newspaper this spring, Old Bet was brought to Somers by Hachaliah Bailey in the early part of the 19th century.
In Tomlinson’s short film, Old Bet was purchased by a local farmer who hoped to use it to plow his fields, but when it didn’t work out, he took the 15,000-pound beast on tour, charging fascinated folks 10 cents to gawp at her.
As the menagerie became more popular, Bailey added more exotic animals, according to Tomlinson’s version.
“While there’s no specific historical evidence to show that other animals traveled with Old Bet, performing pigs and other animals were popular in the early 19th century,” she said.
Bailey was part owner of a Hudson River shipping sloop and a partner in the Croton Turnpike Company, which collected tolls on the road now called Route 100.
Sometime in the 1820s, he built the hotel that is now used as the town hall.
Tomlinson’s film does not name its human protagonist as Bailey, just as a farmer and the master of the film’s narrator.
The Somers Historical Society account relates that Old Bet was shot by an irate farmer near Alfred, Maine, on July 24, 1816.
It’s not really clear why Daniel Davis did it, but some believe he thought it was a sin for people to pay to see an animal. Others suspected he was jealous.
Eleven years later, Bailey put up a statue of Old Bet in front of the Elephant Hotel, now a national historic landmark.
The hotel became a polestar for other menagerie owners, circus folk, animal lovers, and tourists alike. It also was the go-to place to stop for stagecoaches heading to and from New York City.
Bailey, who was said to have had two more elephants besides Old Bet, went on to serve two terms in the state Legislature. He sold the Elephant Hotel in 1836 and moved his family to Virginia.
According to the Westchester County Historical Society, Bailey returned to Somers in 1845, where he reportedly was kicked by a horse and died. He is buried in Somers’ Ivandell Cemetery.
In 1922, newspapers reported that Old John, the “dean” of elephants for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, walked 53 miles—with circus agent Dexter Fellows—from the city to Somers where he placed a wreath on the monument to mark the 62nd anniversary of Old Bet’s death.
Thousands of people were said to have stood along the roadsides to catch a glimpse of Old John as he trundled along and hundreds of schoolchildren sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the ceremony.
The inscription at the base of the monument reads: “To Old Bet from Old John and the Ringling Brother’s Elephant Herd.”
Inspiration for project
Tomlinson said the project was partly inspired by the last decade’s developments concerning animal rights, especially the recent move by Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey Circus to “retire” their elephant acts.
(Ballyhooed as the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the circus ended its 146-year run in 2017. Owners cited high operating costs and declining ticket sales after the elephants were retired.)
Also inspiring to Tomlinson was hearing a podcast called “The Memory Palace,” which included an episode about Old Bet.
The artist visited Somers a little over a year ago to delve into the town’s historical society’s archives.
She was given a tour of the area to get a sense of what it looked like in the 1800s.
“What a wonderful place that was. Grace Zimmermann (of the Historical Society) was very helpful. It was amazing to imagine these fields and farmlands with zebras, giraffes, and hippopotami wandering around. What an interesting, interesting history that people don’t really know about,” Tomlinson recalled.
Old Bet is depicted on signs all over town and is the mascot of the high school’s football team, the Tuskers.
A statue of the beloved pachyderm perches on a pedestal in front of Town Hall, the top floor of which houses The Museum of the Early American Circus, a small, but wonderful, operation housing artifacts ranging from the lavishly embroidered costume that Charles Sherwood Stratton, aka Gen. Tom Thumb, wore while being presented to Queen Victoria, to P.T. Barnum memorabilia and rare pamphlets, portraits of town fathers and mothers, to a hand-carved circus containing hundreds of tiny clowns, acrobats, tigers, lions, and elephants.
Stratton, a little person, became world famous as a performer for unapologetic showman P.T. Barnum.
During the research phase, Tomlinson also visited Middletown, across the Hudson River where the skeleton of a male mastodon is displayed in the lobby of the biotech building at Orange County Community College. Sugar, formerly known as the
Sugar Loaf Mastodon, was unearthed in 1972 in the “Black Dirt” fields near the Warwick-Chester border.
Tomlinson also gathered facts online about the role that Ivoryton, a village in Essex, Conn., had in the processing of ivory imported into the United States.
Tusks from the elephant, hippopotamus, narwhale, walrus, and other animals were used for ornamental and practical objects such as piano keys and combs.
The international trade in ivory was banned in 1990.
Local reaction to film
Grace Zimmermann, second vice president of the Somers Historical Society, called “The Elephant’s Song” “a thought-provoking, animated short film that portrays one point of view about the history of elephants in this country.”
“The fact that such an award-winning director/animator, Lynn Tomlinson, integrated Somers local history into her project, highlights the point that our local history reaches far beyond our town’s borders, and in this case, internationally,” Zimmermann said.
One of the organization’s chief missions, she added, is to “encourage historical research about Somers and environs.”
“Being that we take a position of neutrality when disseminating information, it is always interesting to see the final manifestation of a project whose creators sought information or consulted with our collections, in this case a film,” Zimmermann continued.
“More importantly, it is rewarding to know that the efforts to fulfill this mission are expanding and achieved via our digital collections and social media. Our online presence enables a larger audience to consult with our collections and utilize the information for more diverse types of projects. ‘The Elephant’s Song’ represents the most recent of those projects,” her statement concluded.
What resonated with Tomlinson the most, she said, is the loneliness she thinks Old Bet, as the only one of her kind here at the time, might have felt.
Elephants are extremely intelligent and “social animals,” she explains.
Tomlinson, a faculty member at Towson University in Maryland, likes to tell stories from unusual points of view; in her last project, “The Ballad of Holland Island House,” the tale is narrated by the house itself, a fisherman’s humble abode that sunk into the Chesapeake Bay when tidal forces eroded the island.
Regarding her latest project, Tomlinson said people, including herself, have “loved the circus for more than 100 years.”
“Certainly the most colorful and vibrant parts of my film are the images of the circus,” she said.
Over the years, things change and folks start to think about different ways of viewing that history, she said, and the story of elephants in America is one that she’s trying to tell “with nuance.”
As the “cradle of the American circus,” Somers has an “interesting history, one it should be proud of,” said Tomlinson.
”They should continue to do what they’re doing and showcase that history.”
In one of the film’s most heart-rending scenes, Old Bet gazes longingly at a pod of cows huddling under a tree, imagining them to be her long-lost herd.
The refrain says it all: “These lonely bones/ these mammoth bones of mine/ been moving all my life and now I am tired/Oh, hear my moan/ The only home I find/ is deep within my lonely bones, deep within my mind.”