One of our favorite places to hang out when we first moved to Brattleboro was McNeill’s on Eliot Street. Having moved up from Boston/Cambridge, home of many gritty, grubby Irish-style pubs that were not then or ever going to be fern bars (remember those?), we were happy to grab a pint at Brattleboro’s equivalent spot whenever we had a free evening. Although many of our new Brattleboro compatriots seemed to prefer fern bars, we never found the clean scene that inspiring. Despite pressure to transfer our allegiance to places shiny and new, we continued to frequent McNeill’s, where an affordable pint was always available and the ambience was right.
Although it would never have occurred to me to say this years ago, McNeill’s was a bit like iBrattleboro, always competing with newer, “hipper” nightspots, many of which have come and gone through the years. But McNeill’s hung in there, and although closed since sometime during the pandemic due to structural deficiencies, there was always the hope that it would return.
During its hey day as a real night spot, McNeill’s became the gathering place of choice for a series of events we called iBrattleboro Night Out. Many contemporary readers of the site may not know that iBrattleboro.com was one of the first citizen journalism sites in America, if not the world. We used to get invited to conferences where it was our job to explain to “real” journalists what hyperlocal citizen journalism was. But here in Brattleboro, it was a harder sell than it was elsewhere and so, to get folks oriented to the concept of being an online community in a real place, we sponsored these Nights Out. Our hope was to get people together and give them a chance to meet each other and share stories in real time. It was marginally successful as many such attempts in Brattleboro are — on a good night, a couple dozen people would show up, and we would sit at the tables at McNeill’s and eat peanuts, drink beer, and shout at each other for 2 hours about whatever the hot topic was at the time.
Years later, when we’d kind of given up on iBrattleboro as a community effort, and most of our writers had either flitted off to various local rags or shuffled off to (our nemesis) Facebook, we continued to stop into McNeills for a brew. When my mother’s urban Maryland house movers wanted a drink, we took them to McNeill’s where their differences made them a hit with the locals. We liked sitting just inside on those summer evening when the windows were open all the way to the sidewalk. The cops would cruise by and look at us, but it was chill and everyone just carried on because nothing bad was happening. It was a locals bar. If you lived in town, you could walk there — we always did. It was fun lurching home in the dark.
Which is why we were terribly sorry to hear that McNeill’s is now forever and permanently gone, the victim of a fire along with owner Ray McNeill, who lived above the shop and died before he could escape the smoke that killed him. The circumstances of the fire were of the sort that seemed ordained — the sprinkler system just turned off, Ray just days away from departing for the winter. The way it happened, tragically, and in every sense final, was crushing. Truly nothing can bring it back now.
It’s the big, dramatic (small, soon forgotten) events like these that silently mark the end of an era, a slice of time and place that is going away never to return. I’m among the people who will remember McNeill’s for what it was, but soon, the people who remember McNeill’s will be gone too, and then a new generation of people will pass their time in different ways, perhaps even ‘better’ ways, as is the way of people and their creations here on planet Earth. Time moves on, and places like McNeill’s and even towns like Brattleboro pass away into memory or remain merely as quaint artifacts of a time that barely was – in the case of McNeill’s, just 30 years or so.
So good-bye to McNeill’s Brewery, and to Ray McNeill who gave this town a place to be ourselves. We’ll remember you as long as we can for the unique flavor you gave our town and the unique and open gathering place you became. Old as time and just as ephemeral — Hear’s to ya.