BRATTLEBORO—The old Locke Farm’s big red barn on the corner of Sunset Lake Road and Route 9 in West Brattleboro, between Sunnyside Solar and the Chelsea Royal Diner’s backyard garden, seems very quiet.
In nicer weather, sometimes a cook from the diner can be seen tending to a barbecue smoker just to the side of it. Hens cluck in their pen behind it. Occasionally a rooster crows.
It’s unlikely most visitors to the diner realize how lively that spot was during the late-1970s.
Nearly every night, from 1974 to 1981, that big red barn hosted concerts and dances under its guise as the Chelsea House Cafe and Folklore Center.
In 1974, Carol Levin rented the Locke Farm. Shortly after renting the property in the 1970s, Levin turned the big red barn into the Chelsea House.
It was styled after the popular folk circuit coffeehouses of the era, where guests could have something fairly simple to eat and drink while local and visiting musicians sang songs, swapped tunes, and told stories. Sometimes there would be dancing, too.
The Chelsea House, although open for only about 6½ years, became an integral part of the folk music scene in southeastern Vermont and the surrounding areas. Some would argue it helped create it.
“In 1974, there was nothing going on” in Brattleboro for folk music, Levin said, noting even larger towns such as Amherst and Northampton had little to offer folk music fans.
By the time it closed in 1981, Chelsea House had seen a number of notable local and national musicians on its stage: Rosenshontz, Jim Kweskin, David Bromberg, the Stockwell Brothers, and Elizabeth Cotton, to name just a few.
Levin began visiting the Brattleboro area in 1963 with co-workers from the rehabilitation center near the Tappan Zee Bridge where she worked as a physical therapist. The group came to Vermont to ski.
“I skied in the morning,” and, rather than sitting around the house, waiting for her night-owl friends to wake up, Levin said, “I spent the afternoons exploring Vermont."
She fell in love with Brattleboro, but it took nearly 10 more years for her to move here. Meanwhile, she relocated to Philadelphia in the early 1970s and became involved with the Philadelphia Folk Song Society.
Levin said even though physical therapy was her profession, her dream was to open a coffee house in the style of those she frequented in Philadelphia, where coffee and snacks were served, folk musicians provided the entertainment, and a social scene developed.
After Levin moved around a bit, seeing which locale felt right to her, she decided “I wanted to settle down” and “open a coffee house in Vermont,” she said.
Levin counts local folk legend Margaret MacArthur as influential to her choosing Brattleboro. Levin said she met MacArthur at folk festivals in the northeast. Levin said when she initially told MacArthur of her coffee house plan, the musician discouraged her. But, she said, soon thereafter, she kept getting postcards from MacArthur and, in nearly every one, MacArthur told a tale of someone in Brattleboro supporting the idea of a coffee house.
“I arrived in June of 1974,” Levin said, during the gas crisis. “I filled up my car’s tank in Philadelphia,” and that got her to Brattleboro.
A few months later, Chelsea House was born. “We opened Labor Day weekend. The lineup was The MacArthur Family, John Roberts, and Tony Barrand,” Levin said.
“We had a lot of kids from [Brattleboro] high school,” Levin said, adding “we had a ton of Marlboro students come down,” too.
Through Chelsea House’s formal internship program, students from area colleges spent six weeks doing “everything I did” in art management, Levin said. They “set up concerts, postered, did bookings, office work, [and provided] hospitality to musicians."
Some young people waited tables and generally helped out, Levin said, of the numerous Chelsea House “groupies."
She described the place as a safe place for teens and families. “We never had alcohol,” Levin said, adding, “I was never a bar person."
The demands of running the Chelsea House hardly allowed her time to visit bars.
Levin detailed the venue’s schedule: Sunday nights were contra- or square dances, Mondays “Gini Milkey had international folk dancing,” every Tuesday was “intermittent concert night,” featuring musicians traveling through town, Wednesday was “song swap” where Levin said “we sat around in a circle and traded songs,” and Friday and Saturday nights were concerts.
Thursday was her only night off, but she often had business-related tasks to occupy her time.
The MacArthur Family, in addition to performing opening night, were regulars.
Dan MacArthur, Margaret’s son, remembered the Chelsea House fondly in a recent conversation he had with The Commons.
“It was always fun,” he said. “I played there as a back-up musician,” MacArthur said, adding, “when my mom played there, my other family members would roll down the hill [from Marlboro] and join her."
The dawn of the Dawn Dance
“On Sundays we started having contra and square dances. There was a demand in Brattleboro. Other towns had contra dances, but not Brattleboro,” Levin said.
“The Dawn Dance started in the Chelsea House,” Levin said, noting the popular twice-yearly contra dance, lasting from dusk-til-dawn, began with a dangerous dance floor.
Chelsea House’s former life was a cow barn with a hayloft, Levin said. The floor consisted of sub-flooring with two wide parallel planks running from end to end, forming tracks along which the tractor and hay wagon would travel from the door to the hayloft.
The planks created quite a height differential. But, for Chelsea House’s first few years, this was the floor where dancers whirled and twirled.
And fell down.
“Nearly 20 years ago, Peter Stolley and I watched in shock and some horror as a woman tripped, and fell flat on her face on the rough barn floor of the Chelsea House Folklore Center in West Brattleboro, Vermont. Fortunately, she wasn’t badly hurt. But Peter and I looked at each other and said ’We have to do something about this floor,’” recounted Michael McKernan on the Dawn Dance’s website, www.dawndance.org/about/history.
Levin said McKernan, playing frequently at Chelsea House with his band Applejack, decided to hold a benefit to fund the construction of a new floor.
“That was the first Dawn Dance,” Levin said.
“Our capacity was 75 people,” she said, and “we had hundreds of people who flowed in and out all night long."
“We didn’t think anybody would stay all night, but they did,” Levin said.
Eventually, the Dawn Dance had to move to bigger venues, Levin said, including Brattleboro’s Shriner’s Hall, the Walpole Grange, and the Gibson-Aiken Center, where it still takes place.
The uneven planks on the floor also inspired at least one song, Levin said, noting “New Floor Revenge” as an example.
Those early dances also planted the seed for the twice-monthly Brattleboro Contra Dance, Levin said, now organized by Bre Ginty, Erich Kruger, and Peter Siegel.
At their recent dance at Guilford’s Broad Brook Grange, the group held a mid-dance celebratory dessert social to honor Levin’s 40 years of “incredible energy, generosity, and community spirit,” said the speech read by contra dancer and Grange member Hal Kuhns.
On what may have been the hottest night of the year at that point, about 40 sweaty dancers, and other visiting guests, crowded into the Grange’s low-ceilinged downstairs room to reminisce about all Levin has done for not only the folk-music and -dance communities, but for a number of other local groups.
One of them is the alternative-energy community. Levin, who was married to Richard Gottlieb, helped her husband with his Sunnyside Solar business after she closed the Chelsea House. She also recently joined the Board of Trustees of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC).
Clay Turnbull of the NEC attended Levin’s celebration, and told the crowd, “Carol is how I am a solar person.” Turnbull said when he moved to the area, he asked Levin if it was possible to live “off-the-grid” in this part of the country, and still have electricity. She introduced him to solar, and he has lived in a solar-powered and -heated home in the area for more than two decades.
Other friends who came to honor Levin included her sister, Harriet Levin, and Andy Davis, who runs the Village Dance Series of contra and square dances.
At the end of the dessert social honoring Levin, Davis found himself the winner of the event’s raffle. His prize, a copy of the book The Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax.
Davis held the book up, looked around the room, and, in the spirit of Levin and her work influencing and assisting generations of folk music fans, asked if there was a young person in the crowd who did not have a copy. If so, that person should take the book.
“Everybody should have it,” Davis said.
And with that, the dessert plates were cleared, and Carol Levin and the crowd returned upstairs to resume dancing.