Ray McNeill

Ray McNeill, owner and founder of McNeill's Brewery in Brattleboro, is shown in this photo, date unknown provided by Ro Franco. McNeill died in a fire at the brewery on Friday night.

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BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Fire Department confirmed that brewery owner Clyde Reagin "Ray" McNeill's body was found in the fire at McNeill's Brewery on Elliot Street Friday night. 

According to a news release, the cause of death will be released once the autopsy results come from the Chief Medical Examiner.

Investigators with the fire department, Brattleboro Police Department and Vermont Department of Public Safety Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit determined the second floor is where the fire started. Brattleboro Fire Chief Len Howard said the cause of the fire will remain undetermined and will not be investigated.

"A lot of the times it's because there's obviously many things that could have caused the fires," he said. "When you can't eliminate any of those causes, you must go undetermined."

McNeill’s Brewery, a fixture on Elliot Street since the early 1990s, was torn down Saturday, hours after a fire ripped through the building’s second floor and claimed the life of its founder and owner. McNeill, 62, also lived upstairs. 

In June 2021, Stevens & Associates provided a report to McNeil after the engineering group performed a structural assessment of the building at 90 Elliot St.

"The results of the review were that the two lower floors below the brewery floor are structurally failing, and the building should not be occupied until means are taken to stabilize the building," the news release states.

The report found that several joists had failed entirely along the west wall of the structure. The joists supported a large load of storage tanks at the brewery level, according to the news release. 

Stevens & Associates suggested the cause of the distress could have to do with moisture from brewing, and the risk of collapse was exacerbated due to the high floor loads from equipment and liquid storage on the brewery floor. The fire department told McNeill that first responders would not be entering the building in the case of an emergency due to the unsafe condition of the building, according to the news release.

Firefighters battled flames from outside Friday night and Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates met with town officials Saturday. He said the building was not in stable condition before the fire, and with the water damage, the safest option was to tear the building down, according to the news release. 

Howard then made the call to do so. 

The brewery had been closed since March 2020, before the start of the COVID pandemic, but McNeill had intended to reopen next year, if or when the building was ruled structurally sound. The recently reopened Kipling’s Restaurant and Pub, right next door, did not sustain damage from the fire, but Howard said that was also a factor in the decision to tear McNeill’s down Saturday.

“It’s close to Kipling’s,” Howard said at the scene. “We told them that we didn’t want them to operate their business until the building was stable and torn down.”

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Cindy Kane-Fitzgerald of Brattleboro watched the building being torn down with a heavy heart. She first visited the brewery with her husband and 3-year-old son about 20 years ago.

“I made friends with people that day that I’m still friends with,” she said. “There are a lot of wonderful memories associated with that building. I played music in that pub, drank in that pub and made many friends in that pub. It was a wonderful spot. So many wonderful things happened there. It’s going to be a real loss for the community.”

Brattleboro Select Board member Jess Gelter also watched as a building full of memories came tumbling down, piece by piece. She proudly recalled winning the popular ring game at McNeill’s, and she hoped that somebody was able to save the catamount head sculpture that was a fixture on the bar.

“Everyone had a relationship with that,” she said of the catamount. “I remember how smooth it was, I think from everyone petting it when they were sitting at the bar.”

The building that became McNeill’s was constructed in 1892 and originally served as one of the fire stations on Elliot Street. McNeill moved his brewpub there from another location in 1990.

As the building was being torn down, just around the corner at the River Garden Marketplace on Main Street, people gathered for an emotional pub “singalong” Saturday — similar to ones that used to be held monthly at McNeill’s. Friends and longtime patrons sang songs and hoisted a few beers in tribute to the brewery and its owner.

“It was really kind of a clubhouse for Brattleboro for a long time,” said Brattleboro resident Dan Lydon, who frequented the brewery since its opening. “There was a real crowd of regulars that would hang out there all the time, going back to the early ‘90s. And Ray really had the vision to provide that for people. Plus, he made some damn good beer. He was kind of the spearhead for the microbrew movement in this region.”

Through his astute knowledge of the brewing process and his experimental nature, McNeill became a legend in the burgeoning craft beer industry. People visited from all over the country to sample his various concoctions, such as the ESB, Oatmeal Stout, Duck's Breath Ale and the Dead Horse IPA (“You can’t beat a Dead Horse” was a popular refrain).

“I just watched them pull all of the awards that he won off the wall,” Lydon said. “He was one of the top award-winning breweries in the country, very, very high up in the world of brewing.”

McNeill was also known to play his beloved cello with jazz bands at the brewpub, and would sit for hours pontificating at the bar about beer, politics and a variety of other subjects. On Saturday, many described him as “ornery” or “curmudgeonly,” but always welcoming and inclusive.

“It would be very hard to describe the feeling that was there, especially in the early days,” Lydon said. “There was a real kind of frontier town atmosphere to Brattleboro, and McNeill’s kind of personified that in that era. Ray didn’t take (stuff) from anybody. He ran a house that reflected his personality. More than anything, it was welcoming to all types and all kinds.”

Maia Segura of South Newfane first started going to McNeill’s (then called Three Dollar Dewey's) while attending Marlboro College in the late 1980s.

“When he moved into the new building (on Elliot Street) there were a lot of us (former Marlboro students) who migrated over to the new space, and he made all of us feel welcome,” said Segura. “I felt particularly safe in his space, even when going through hard times. He was completely nonjudgmental. He definitely gave us all a kick in the (butt) when we needed it, but he always gave us a safe place to land, and he never stopped being a friend, which was really incredible.”

(Portions of this article are reprinted from Monday's e-edition of the Reformer).


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