Ripton Community Coffee House celebrates 25 years


ANDREA CHESMAN AND Richard Ruane hosted one heck of a house-warming/jam session dinner party back in 1994, which spurred the idea to start up the Ripton Community Coffee House on the first Saturday in May 1995. RCCH celebrates 25 years this May, but because of the coronavirus has had to pause any performances until the fall. Photo by Beth Duquette

RUSTY BELLE PERFORMS at the Ripton Community Coffee House on Feb. 1, 2014. The coffee house celebrates 25 years this May in spite of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by Beth Duquette
DID YOU KNOW? One fateful day when Andrea Chesman was going home to Burlington, she picked up a hitchhiker in Charlotte. He was a musician carrying a mandolin, hitching back to Burlington from Wisconsin. That hitchhiker was Richard Ruane. The two were married and the rest is history.

RIPTON — This May, the beloved Ripon Community Coffee House was set to celebrate its 25th year hosting musical gatherings at the historic Ripton Community House, a block up from the General Store on Route 125. But like so many other events, this celebration has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, too. 

A special concert of local all-stars — Matt Flinner (mandolin), Brett Hughes (guitar), Caleb Elder (fiddle) and Pat Melvin (bass) — was scheduled for the first Saturday in May; now RCCH is looking at opening their 25th season in the fall — probably in October. 

Instead of letting RCCH’s silver anniversary pass unnoticed, let’s take a minute to be together (while reading this article) and honor the amazing music and community we’ve enjoyed on the first Saturday of the month for the past 25 years.

To do that, let’s start at the beginning… way back in November 1994. There was no pandemic, no hysteria, just a really good house-warming party/jam session at Richard Ruane and Andrea Chesman’s new home in Ripton.   

“Some of the people gathered in the dining room included Sallie Mack, Ian Pounds, Tim Price, Su White, Mark Mulqueen and Beth Duquette,” Ruane writes in the brief history of RCCH on rcch.org. “Tim started a conversation about how great it used to be… in Ripton. Life was better in the old days, he said, when there were regular community gatherings at the Ripton Community House.”

As it turned out, several of the musicians at the party had played at the Community House before and spoke highly of its acoustics. But by the early ’90s, the building 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?” Ruane continued. “The Community House was the perfect place for it and it was just sitting there unused.” 

The idea was hatched and the format of an open mic followed by a feature performer was set. Admission would remain nominal to keep it open to the whole community and refreshment sales could help pay for the expenses. With the blessings of the town selectboard, the RCCH 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 Ruane. It was a benefit for the coffeehouse. Over 100 people showed up and (at $3 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 RCCH going.

“We expected we would have 60 or 70 people showing up for the first few concerts and then the novelty of it would wear off, and our audience would dwindle down to 20 or 30 die-hards,” Ruane and Chesman echoed. “Luckily we were wrong, and our attendance continued to increase.”

With such good attendance, they soon decided to have the refreshment sales be fundraisers for area non-profit organizations. 

“A local non-profit organization brings in their own bakers, runs the kitchen for the night and keeps the money they make,” explained Chesman, who is a freelance writer and editor with something like 30 or 32 cookbooks with her name on them. “We do this as a community service, to keeps our volunteer cookie and brownie bakers from burning out, and to bring in people who might not have come to the coffeehouse otherwise, thus continuing to build our coffeehouse community.”

To date, RCCH has hosted 278 concerts, featured 1,155 open mic performers and provided a place for non-profit organizations’ bake sales 186 times.

Wow.

The tasty treats and community-feel-good vibe aren’t the only things that draw the audiences back month after month. No, let’s be honest, it’s the quality of the performers that pull in the crowds.

Ruane and Duquette are mostly in charge of the programming. They also conveniently play in a duo together, which comes in handy if they ever have an empty slot. Duquette also does the programming for the Festival On-The-Green. Together Ruane and Duquette search for local Vermont talent, as well as musicians from across the country and beyond to come play in the 150-seat Community House. In November they attend the New England Regional Folk Alliance, an annual music business conference where many gigs get booked, and occasionally the International Folk Alliance. 

“We’re constantly exposing ourselves to new music at different festivals and through submissions,” Ruane said. “The planning is now going into the fall of 2021, so, yeah, we can get quite the backlog.”

“Our audience completely trusts Beth and Richard to find amazing music,” Chesman praised, adding that her role with the RCCH is some of the publicity, but mainly she cooks a nice dinner for the musicians before the show. “We feed them at the house after sound check… I try to give them something they appreciate.”

In addition to Ruane (director and co-treasurer) and Chesman (secretary) the coffeehouse has Duquette (co-director) doing booking, publicity, set up and more; Christiana Blomfield (co-treasurer) at the door; Joanna Colwell as the emcee; Mark Mulqueen running sound; Win Colwell (designer of the logo and banner) designing the newsletter; and the stalwart, steadfast RCCH volunteers and additional decision makers Rick Shappy, Karen Douse, Shari Brown, Carol Price, Casey Burger and Karl Larson. 

“We really are about the community,” Ruane said. “Especially in the winter months… it’s a great opportunity for people to see each other, which is such an important thing. Now it’s beyond Ripton and it’s a major part of people’s lives. Some people ended up getting married because their first date was at the RCCH… Of course it’s a major part of our life too… And now having the community not being able to get together is… weird.” 

Isolation is nothing new for most folks up in Ripton, but take away one good monthly social interaction and you know life isn’t quite what it should be.

So the musicians and audiences are going to have to wait to enjoy anything more from RCCH until the fall, when hopefully we can all come back together to share a community space, listen to some incredible music and eat a guilt-free brownie (or two.) Happy 25th RCCH!

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