This Pride Month, Bellows Falls residents want to better commemorate a historic gay bar
Jimmy Malley grew up in Bellows Falls. And as a closeted gay man in the 1970s, he’d often walk up Main Street and past the Andrews Inn — Vermont's first gay bar — but never go inside.
“Oh, I was totally wondering,” Malley said on a recent afternoon, standing in front of the former site of the bar. “And I had friends, you know, that were coming here. And I just didn’t want to chance it with, you know, my family’s business and stuff.”
Malley’s parents owned a pharmacy in downtown Bellows Falls, and he thought there was too much at stake in revealing his sexual identity to his parents and community.
Malley was 27 when he came out. He says one of the first things he did was finally walk through the doors of the Andrews Inn.
“You were with like-minded people. And people were congratulating me, for finally, you know, coming to Andrews Inn,” he said. “They were like, ‘What took you so long?’ And it was fun. They had disco music and the silver ball twirling around in the middle of the dance floor. And to be able to have that right in Bellows Falls, you know, was great.”
But not everyone in the small, former mill town felt the same way.
“There was always the tension. There was always not knowing what was going to happen next,” said Thom Herman, a co-owner of the Andrews Inn from 1979 until it closed five years later. “There was always not knowing who was going to call you what when you were coming in and out of the place.”
Herman says he didn’t think about the historical significance of the Andrews Inn while he was operating it.
But looking back now, and reflecting on Vermont’s national leadership in legalizing civil unions and gay marriage, Herman says he sees the role the Andrews Inn had in advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Vermont.
“I have some of the most horrible memories of my life from those years. And I have some of the closest, most wonderful connections with people that to this day exist,” Herman said. “I mean, I learned a lot about hate, and about love, and about alcohol, and about addiction, and about community and the value of allies. And I also think that we put a lot of love into that environment. And people have contacted me, 20 or 30 years later, thanking me. That has helped me reflect on perhaps a role that we had that was important in the past.”
“I have some of the most horrible memories of my life from those years. And I have some of the closest, most wonderful connections with people that to this day exist."Thom Herman, former co-owner of the Andrews Inn
The role the Andrews Inn played in the LGBTQ+ social justice movement of the '70s and '80s was also recognized by the state of Vermont.
The Division of Historic Preservation put up a historic roadside marker three years ago under the same program that marks the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge, the first ski tow in the United States, and the former homes of Robert Frost and Rudyard Kipling.
But the wording and placement of the Andrews Inn plaque has proven to be almost as controversial as the inn itself, back when it was leaking cigarette smoke and disco music onto the streets of Bellows Falls.
“When we were having those initial conversations about the marker, there was not 100% support by some town officials,” said Laura Trieschmann, Vermont’s Historic Preservation Officer.
The Andrews Inn sign was installed on a side street, not directly in front of the former gay bar.
The sign is two-sided, and on the more-visible side is the story about the historic building where the Andrews Inn operated. Information about the Andrews Inn itself is on the other side of the sign, squeezed into a corner of the building, facing the Connecticut River, and pretty much hidden away unless you know to look for it.
Trieschmann says that while the state owns and maintains all of the historic markers across Vermont, local government has a lot of input on where the sign goes.
And the Andrews Inn sign, she says, deserves better visibility.
“You don’t necessarily see this marker as you are driving through town,” she said. “It could be highlighted a little better.”
Now there’s a growing movement among some of the folks in Bellows Falls to move the Andrews Inn sign and to honor its place in history — both the uplifting parts, and also the more painful parts.
One day earlier this month, a crowd of 20 or 30 people came out to wave rainbow flags and welcome the Vermonter Amtrak train.
It was part of a statewide LGBTQ+ Pride festival. Towns across Vermont, from St. Albans to Brattleboro, met the train and showed support for Pride Month.
In Bellows Falls, there have been queer dance parties, a series of LGBTQ+ films at the local movie house, and art exhibits and talks about queer life in Vermont.
Gail Golec was a part of the Bellows Falls Pride committee, and she said the group thought Pride Month was a perfect time to address the past.
“I think it was time to know the full story,” she said. “And it isn’t a nice story in a lot of parts of it. The town played a big role in that, and kind of some nasty things definitely went on.”
It’s not clear if the group will get all the pieces in place to move the sign during Pride Month, but Golec says she’s confident it will happen.
The state is on board, and the local historical commission has approved it.
If the select board supports the move, and they can find a place where the sign won’t be in the way of the snow plows, then Golec says Bellows Falls can show its commitment to LGBTQ+ rights by moving the sign to where it’s more visible.
“I think that’s the first step, is understanding how it happened. And say, ‘OK, we don’t want that to happen again,’" she said. "So what are we going to do going forward that’s different, how can we do it differently?”
The LGBTQ+ community is currently facing the same bigotry and hate across the country that the Andrews Inn faced in its time.
Legislatures in other states are passing anti-trans laws, and school committees are removing books that mention two moms and gay marriage.
So Golec says while this conversation in Bellows Falls is just about a sign, it's also a huge step in trying to address the past and embrace a more thoughtful and loving future.
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