BELLOWS FALLS — On Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, the LGBTQ community celebrated the relocation of the Andrews Inn historic marker on The Square.
The event also celebrated the naming of what now is the Andrews Inn Lounge, part of the Ciao Popolo Restaurant, and the installation of a plaque and photos there commemorating the building's history.
Andrews Inn was a historic gay bar, nightclub, and inn that operated from 1973 to 1984, one of the few safe places for LGBTQ people to gather in all of New England and the only one in a rural region.
The inn helped shape the greater Bellows Falls community over the past several decades, said Betsy Thurston, the executive director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA), one of the event's sponsors.
She noted that the event was intended to "honor the spiritual gatekeepers" of the inn, who included Michael Gigante; Thom Herman and Jeremy Youst, who attended the event; Fletcher Proctor, who was unable to attend; and John Moises and Eva Mondon, who have passed away.
Moisis founded the Andrews Inn in the Windham Hotel building on The Square.
The current hotel, the fifth on this site since 1817, was built in 1933, replacing one destroyed by fire. The building houses the hotel and Ciao Popolo restaurant and several retail storefronts. It has been under restoration since 2008.
One unique aspect of the hotel is that its ballroom sits directly over a still-very-active railroad tunnel that was built under The Square in 1851 for the Vermont Valley Railroad.
Safe and accepting
Since 2019, a state historic plaque on the side of the building has marked the history of both the Windham Hotel building and the Andrews Inn. This year, that plaque was relocated to a more visible spot near the entrance of the building and turned so that the Andrews Inn history is prominently featured.
From 1973 to 1984, Andrews Inn offered bars, discos, lodging, and food for a mainly gay clientele in a safe and accepting place. Urban and rural LGBTQ people gathered there freely, while at the same time straight people were welcomed and enjoyed the Inn's festive, entertaining, and welcoming atmosphere.
The inn, founded by Moises, whose family owned the hotel building, was eventually sold to and operated by Herman and Youst from 1979 until it closed in 1984, a time of unprecedented cultural change in gay rights. Vermont's place as the center of the back-to-the-land movement included a strong feminist and lesbian contingent, all of which impacted the Inn's history.
When the AIDS epidemic broke onto the scene in the 1980s, Andrews Inn was a space for local, rural LGBTQ people to meet with a fair amount of safety, as well as a destination for gay visitors from larger Northeast cities.
Thurston said that a significant group of people who visited the Inn in those years when it was active "fell in love with Bellows Falls." Many of them moved to the region and "invested so much" time, energy, and money into the community.
They bought and renovated homes there, created businesses and organizations, became involved in local government, and were instrumental in the rehabilitation of several major buildings and other important projects in the village. Many of those individuals either attended or were mentioned at the event.
Thurston noted that throughout 2023 the community had created a special calendar of events recognizing and celebrating LGBTQ pride. Noting the growing hatred and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, she said it was important to celebrate how the Inn had created an atmosphere in the greater community of "welcoming and being open to diversity."
"We choose love," she said.
Darlene Doane currently operates the Ciao Popolo restaurant, which hosted the event, in the former Andrews Inn, and said that she has renamed part of the facility the Andrews Inn Lounge.
"I'm honored to do this," Doane said. "It's a big deal."
The rededicated Andrews Inn Lounge has photos of the inn's founders, and Doane said she's hoping to get her hands on one of the original Andrews Inn signs for the room as well.
Gail Golec, who used six episodes of her Secret Life of Death podcast to discuss and document the history of Andrews Inn, was one of the event's speakers.
"This is very exciting to me, and a beautiful thing," Golec said. In creating her podcast about the Inn, she said she was able to get different generations of the LGBTQ community talking about Bellows Falls and its importance to them.
"This is our town, too," Golec said of the town's LGBTQ residents. She said she wondered why some people are "reluctant to be proud of their history. Most people here had no idea of the importance of Andrews Inn to the LGBTQ movement."
She said that "slowly, the outside world" - those who have not been involved in the LGBTQ movement -is becoming aware of the importance of the Andrews Inn in the movement's history.
As it turned out, Oct. 11 is also the birthday of Cleve Jones, the author, human rights and gay liberation activist who, among many other things, founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt project.
In his honor, the event concluded with the presentation and consumption of a rainbow-decorated birthday cake that read, "Happy Birth-Gay! We love you Cleve!"
While participants enjoyed dinner and the birthday cake, individuals spontaneously shared their memories of the days when Andrews Inn was an active center for the LGBTQ community in New England.
Scott Belt, who works at Ciao Popolo and helped host the event, said that he had many fun memories of going to Andrews Inn when he was young and was very excited to once again be reconnected with Herman and Youst.
Those two men, on the other hand, said they had not been back in the space for decades, and said they were "thrilled to return" there, while Gigante noted that "it seemed smaller than he remembered."
Youst recalled that he was often behind the bar in the ballroom and served as handyman for the Inn, which, he said, gave him the privilege of "holding the spade" in the pictures they took with the relocated historic marker.
He said he remembered well the night in 1981 when the Star Hotel, next door to the Inn, burned down, taking the lives of two young Bellows Falls firefighters, Dana Fuller and Terry Brown. Youst said he'd been on the Inn's roof that night taking photos of the tragic fire. Today, the site of the hotel is a park, where a memorial commemorates the lives of the two firemen.
'Value and longevity'
Susan MacNeil, who ran the Keene AIDS Project for 15 years and is a founding member of the Pride Planning Committee in Bellows Falls, hosted the proceedings.
MacNeil said that the event was just one of several this year in Bellows Falls that highlighted the "value and longevity of the story of" the Andrews Inn.
In a time of "ugly, hateful rhetoric," MacNeil said she was proud of her community for putting up banners downtown in The Square celebrating Gay Pride.
"This is a very important part of Bellows Falls' history," MacNeil said. "What happened here was so historic."
This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.