History of the Ripton Community Coffee House

– according to Richard Ruane

The Ripton Community Coffee House began at a house-warming party/jam session at Richard Ruane and Andrea Chesman’s house in November 1994. Andrea and Richard had moved up from the valley to a house in Ripton the previous summer (though Richard had lived in Ripton back in 1982-83). Some of the people gathered around the table included Sallie Mack, Ian Pounds, Tim Price, Su White, Mark Mulqueen and Beth Duquette. Tim started a conversation about how great it used to be (a favorite topic of conversation anywhere in Vermont) in Ripton. Life was better in the old days, he said, when there were community gatherings at the Ripton Community House such as spaghetti dinners hosted by the volunteer fire department and occasional contra dances. In 1994, however, the Community House was only used for the annual town meeting and the occasional wedding.

Wouldn’t it be great, we all agreed, to have a regular community gathering to give people a chance to see their neighbors and hear some good music. The Community House seemed to be the perfect place for it.

Over the course of the following winter, several of us continued to discuss the idea and came up with a format of an open mike followed by a featured performer. We would charge only a small amount at the door to cover expenses and still make it accessible to the entire community. We would sell refreshments to help pay our expenses as well.

We approached the Town Select Board and they were very supportive of the idea of a once a month coffeehouse at the Community House.

The coffeehouse officially started on May 6, 1995. The first coffeehouse had an open mike with Andrew Marks, Nelda Clemens and Tim Price, Rodger Hamilton, Hannah Cohen (step dancing to a boom box) and Jonathan McDonough. The featured act was Rick Klein, Sallie Mack and Richard Ruane. It was a benefit for the coffeehouse. Over one hundred people showed up and (at $3.00 for adults and $1.50 for children and seniors as well as all the money for the baked goods and beverages) it managed to raise $473 to get the Ripton Community Coffee House going.

Quite frankly, the expectation at that time was that we would have sixty or seventy people showing up for the first few concerts and then the novelty of it would wear off. We figured in eight months we would be down to an audience of twenty or thirty. Luckily we were wrong. Our June concert with Womensing drew more people than our opening show. The July and August shows didn’t do all that well, but attendance picked up again with the fall. As we went through the cold months, we continued to draw more and more people. One of the great things about the audience is that it includes a total mix of ages, from babes in arms to the over-eighty crowd. Whole families come with all their children and students show up from Middlebury College. There was one coffeehouse where the upstairs balcony resembled a nursery, with six babies less than two months old in attendance.

Soon we decided to have the refreshment sales be fundraisers for area non-profit organizations. A local non-profit organization would bring in their own bakers, run the kitchen for the night and keep the money they made. We did this for a few reasons: first, we have a strong community focus and want to support the local non-profits; second, it keeps our volunteer muffin makers from burning out too quickly; third, it brings different people in who might not have come to the coffeehouse otherwise, thus continuing to build our coffeehouse community.

We started out alternating between having the refreshment sales benefit an area non-profit and benefiting the coffeehouse. As time passed we were able to have more of the refreshment sales benefit the local non-profits.

These days the price of admission has gone up a bit. We average Close to one hundred people at our shows. It is folding chair seating, so a number of people bring their own cushions to sit on. The format is the same as when we started (except there are only five open mike slots instead of six).

We have had to cancel our shows due to weather four times (not bad for being in the mountainous town of Ripton). Three of those four cancellations were in 2003, however, and two of those in 2003 were for the same act, Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen. They finally were able to successfully take the stage in October of 2004.

We have also had to relocate our shows twice due to problems with the Community House. The first time was after a very small but quite sooty fire in the furnace. The second time was due to the parking lot being flooded. Both times, thanks to the generosity of the school board, school administration and especially the custodian Roger Larocque, we were able to move the coffeehouse to the multipurpose room of the Ripton Elementary School.

Whatever the weather conditions, or location, the coffeehouse has been helped by a willing band of volunteers who have set up and taken down chairs, helped with parking and postering, taken money at the door, hauled equipment and swept the floors.

There have been a number of highlights over the past years. The open mike is always unpredictable, though it never fails to be entertaining. There have been a number of favorite moments from that. One is the seven-year-old step dancer from the first coffeehouse. Then there was the time Lincoln, Vermont’s octogenarian fiddler Dot Brown played with "Fireball" Bob Many; Bud Leeds’ excellent jazz performance, and the performances by the a capella ensemble from the Mountain Singing Camp. After the 9/11 tragedy, some Native American steel workers who had been working at ground zero came up to Vermont to relax. They stopped in at the coffeehouse and performed songs and poetry at the open mike. There have been a few performers at the open mike who took awhile to catch on. People didn’t know what to make of Bob Bernstein at first, with his plaid pants, a voice that was never very far from cracking and his quirky song-writing style. After a few times up on stage though people started singing along, an experience he described as “confusing.”

The baked good have been a treat, so to speak. A number of local bakers have a following, and the word quickly gets passed around if they show up with a signature dish. Some of these have included M.J. Price’s cream puffs made with an organic Jersey cream filling, Pete and Deb Karpak’s cheese danish squares, Nancy Breiden’s death by chocolate torte and Rob Keith’s peanut butter cake with chocolate ganache filling. We used our bake sales profits to provide the community with full-size mugs in 1999. For the last several years the Vermont Coffee Company has been donating their delicious free-trade organic coffee to the Ripton Community Coffee House.

As of mid-February 2010, we have presented 170 concerts, featured 762 open mike performers and provided a place for non profit organizations’ bake sales 104 times. Throughout this time we have been generously supported by a continually evolving audience of music lovers, willing to brave the drive up the mountain in the winter and the blood-sucking mosquitoes in the summer. It has been a great time so far and we thank everyone who has helped make it so.

We welcome any thoughts, recollections or comments you would like to make. Please email them to rcchfolks@gmail.com