BRATTLEBORO — Since the fire that destroyed McNeill's Brewery and took Ray McNeill's life, scores of people who knew the man, his pub, and his product have stopped to talk about him and remember.
An award-winning brewer, McNeill was dubbed “the Bohemian Brewer of Brattleboro” in Microbrews magazine, where the author wrote, “His brews are not quite heavenly, but close enough to it that you might hear a harp playing in the background when you sip one of his brews.”
But this Renaissance man was much more than a brewer.
McNeill and his ex-wife, Holiday Eames, built the brewery together. They met at Bennington College where both were music majors and graduated in 1982.
“For his senior performance, he played Bach's Partita 3 - a highly technical piece - completely from memory, which was an amazing feat,” Eames told The Commons.
“He had only been playing the violin for two years at that time,” she said, noting that McNeill did graduate work in cello performance at the New York Conservatory of Music in New York City.
About that time, her brother, Alan Eames, had left Portland, Maine, where he opened and ran Three Dollar Dewey's, another legendary bar, and in 1985 opened a bar with the same name in Brattleboro on South Main Street. He invited his sister and McNeill to visit.
“He soon moved on, but we never left,” Eames said. “It took us five years to pay off the opening debts while we worked seven days a week.”
“That's how it happened that our kids were with us, why we had games, created a family setting - we also wanted a place where the community would feel at home,” she added.
“We built the long tables so that you would sit next to other people and end up in conversation, interacting and connecting,” Eames continued. “We used to say, 'If you can't do it at your mom's house, you can't do it here.'”
“On Friday afternoons, the Marlboro College faculty would come with their kids,” she remembered. “Parents were grateful to have a place to come to as a family, not have to spend money on a babysitter and be separated - to just know everyone was having fun and there would be other kids there, too.”
Eames said that, in 1988, Greg Noonan, a beermaking expert who opened the first brew pub in the state - Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington - managed to change Vermont law to allow craft brewing.
“It hadn't been possible since Prohibition and was a brand new idea,” she said.
Micro-brewing was taking off in Vermont, and Catamount Brewing Co. in Windsor became the first bottling craft brewery in the Northeast.
“Ray wanted to brew, and the folks at Catamount were kind enough to let him apprentice there,” Eames said. “Before Ray did music, he was pre-med, and there is a lot of science in brewing because it is based on chemical reactions that change at different temperatures and are processed by a living yeast culture.”
She said McNeill's sense of humor is evident in the names he gave his varities of beer, like “Big Nose Blond” and “Dead Horse IPA.”
Eames described her ex-husband as “truly a pioneer in the beer renaissance that was about to sweep the nation, and he loved helping numerous other small breweries start up in this area.”
“He took to it quickly, but it was hard work, a lot of driving, and we needed a bigger space,” she said.
Bit by bit, becoming McNeill's
In 1989, the couple bought the 90 Elliot St. building, the town's original firehouse, police station, and ice locker.
“We saved our tips for many months for the closing and dropped about 2,750 crumpled $1 bills on the closing table that day,” Eames said. “Thinking back, this is symbolic of how the community really built this project.”
“The ice locker was an insulated room with giant metal drawers,” she said, describing the 1875 wood-frame building. “Before people had refrigerators, they could rent a drawer. Ice would be cut and dragged up from Frost Place to keep the room cold.”
“The drawers were still standing in the room that became our brewery,” she said.
“A patron also once told me that as a child he had been locked into a jail cell in the building and told that was where he would end up if he didn't behave,” Eames recalled.
“We had to cut a giant hole in the back of the building from this room to have a crane move the stainless-steel brewing equipment in from the parking lot four floors below,” she said. She also remembers “lowering the 'spent' grains on a pulley after brewing for farmers to pick up and feed to their cows.”
She described their finances as “limited.” More specifically? “None,” she said.
“So we added equipment bit by bit and did everything by hand that we could,” she said.
For example, “we would have never been able to afford a bottling machine, but Ray was able to design and build one that worked manually and filled four bottles at a time,” she said. “That was a breakthrough that allowed us to bottle beer and sell to local shops.”
The building had to be totally gutted and renovated, Eames said, with the couple doing as much painting and tiling as they could with friends' help.
They used oak, maple, and ceramic tile, and Eames recalls someone saying that their efforts were going to last another 200 years.
They commissioned local artists to build the bar top, the ironwork stools, and bar rail, cover the walls with art, make the sign, and sculpt a Catamount head for the taps.
“We had so much amazing help from the people that bartended, learned to brew, bottled and labeled, cooked, cleaned, made tie-dyed shirts, and delivered beer,” Eames said. “There was a lot that had to go on behind the scenes. We couldn't have done it without their dedicated enthusiasm. I would like to send out a tribute to each and every one of them.”
Eames said it was “like having the huge family I wanted but never had before: chaos, fun and hard work - 12 hours open plus four hours prep, seven days a week.”
“Not only was there a party of people we knew well in our 'living room' every night, but there were labels, T-shirts, glasses to design, beer festivals to go to,” she said.
Eames noted that later, when the family was four and moved to a house, “the kids couldn't sleep because it was too quiet. They needed the familiar sounds of merriment downstairs to lull them to sleep.”
Eames left the business in 1999, and the couple's divorce became official in 2000.
She said that she has been “overwhelmed by the supportive and loving response of the community.”
She added that while people are “kind” to think of and suggest rebuilding, “everything went down with the building - brew logs, stainless steel Grundy tanks filled with beer, even Ray's beloved cello.”
“It feels very final,” she said.
'A place to go and talk and be with your friends'
Otis Rogers, who ran the brewery for a time, started working there in 1994, helping build a room downstairs and a bottling room, and stayed for 11 years. Like countless others, he met his wife at the pub.
“It was kind of an exciting time, when they first started expanding the brewery,” Rogers said. “I just happened to be there at the moment when it went from being a well-loved local bar to the McNeil's brewery that it became. It was sort of boom time.”
Describing his boss as a “very kind-hearted, decent person,” Rogers said what was remarkable about McNeill and the pub was that “everything in there was homemade and locally crafted.”
“For years, there was no television, there were no video games,” he said.
“There were these big, giant tables so you couldn't sit alone. That was his and Holiday's vision. It was a meeting place, a place to go and talk and be with your friends. That is, I think, part of why it was such a community center.”
“Plus it all felt like 'we're doing it ourselves.' We're making our own beer and food, all the furniture was made by local people,” he said. “Ray had a real hands-off way, which could be frustrating at times, but it gave a lot of leeway.”
“That hands-off attitude meant everybody had a hand in what the environment was,” Rogers said. “It felt like our place.”
He described the long maple and mahogany tables, wooden hand-carved bench, ironwork, and railing that wended its way all around the pub so folks could put their feet up. The building was crammed full - like “an ant colony,” he said.
“I think that building just got worn out,” he said. “It was just so busy for so long.”
A “quirky, funny guy,” McNeill was also very smart and liked to joke, said Rogers.
“He had nicknames for people; he called me 'Oatman.' And he'd say, even to strangers, 'Hey, you owe me $5.'”
“What I think most people remember is the environment he created,” Rogers said. “It was just a magical place. You could talk with 1,000 people, and everyone would have a story about some important life event that happened there and what it meant to them.”