Our special place, our special time

McNeill’s lives on in our memories, our friendships, and in the children who were brought up there and ask their parents, ‘Where did you meet?’

BRATTLEBORO — I met Ray McNeill in my early 20s. We had mutual friends and we often found our selves sitting at one of the long tables at McNeill's Brewery talking about music, history, literature, or one of the many other topics we enjoyed.

For years, I only knew him as Ray, the guy who was always at the bar. It wasn't until one day during a casual conversation that I realized that Ray was the owner of the brewery and pub that bore his name. Perhaps he assumed that I knew, but it always struck me that he never mentioned it.

That's what McNeill's became to me and so many others: a place where it didn't matter who you were or what you did. If you were at McNeill's, you were accepted as family.

* * *

Over the years of patronage and eight years of working for Ray, I got to know him better. I knew him to be intelligent, talented, grumpy, stubborn, funny, and extremely generous.

Much can be said about the unique atmosphere he created - an atmosphere that was as close to an English-style pub as we were likely to see in this area. And much can be said about the beer he brewed, which was among the best in the world.

But more than a great atmosphere and world class beer, McNeill's offered a community and social center.

It was a place where you were sure to see a friend. It was where we went when work was out, after a meeting, before dinner, and when the shows were over. It was a place of homecoming when friends returned for the holidays. It was where we gathered to celebrate and also to mourn.

Ray's generosity and commitment to the community was shown annually as his iconic long tables were loaded up and delivered to the community Thanksgiving dinner. With Ray's interest in local politics, McNeill's was a popular gathering spot on election night.

A place free of judgment and stratification, McNeill's was a diverse representation of the community. On any given day you might find trades workers drinking next to lawyers, service industry workers next to doctors, and folks of all walks enjoying a pint together.

It was a place where anyone could go and feel welcome. Young parents arrived with their toddlers and had “play dates” for young and old alike.

It was a communal space that made it easy to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and every day held the possibility of making a new connection. Many long-lasting friendships, relationships, marriages, and subsequent children all started with two people who met at McNeill's.

* * *

On Dec. 2, 2022, Ray McNeill died, having perished in the fire that took his life and his building. A wave of shock, grief, and denial flooded social media as those close to him speculated as to whether or not he was in the building; he had been planning on traveling to Mexico for the winter, and many thought he had already left.

As the news began to solidify, another wave of posts emerged. Longtime and long-ago patrons of McNeill's began to post photos and share memories, spanning three decades of their erstwhile pasts.

Each photograph came with its own story, capturing people sitting in the oversized, wood-carved throne, playing the ring-toss game, dressing the Catamount head in silly hats, or simply having a good time with friends.

The following day, much of the McNeill's community watched as the building was torn down, while we silently shared the pain of a seemingly dormant heart that we didn't know was still beating and was violently ripped from the community. The birthplace of so many friendships and memories was gone.

McNeill's now lives on in the memories we share and the stories we tell. It lives on in the friendships born and fostered there. It lives in the children who were brought up there and ask their parents, “Where did you meet?”

It lives in a sense of knowing that we were in a special place at a special time.

And we have Ray to thank for that.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates