by Irene Racz
It’s difficult to imagine, given the eyesore it has become, that the building housing the former Brown Derby Supper Club was once an important political and social hub in Montpelier.
The restaurant, and the accompanying motel units sitting behind and adjacent to it, held a special place in the hearts of many in the community, making its decline even more tragic than if it were just any deteriorating structure.
With its kitschy derby hat on the restaurant roof — mirroring the look of the famous chain of Brown Derby eateries in California and the Midwest — “the Derby” embodied utilitarian architecture typical of the mid-20th Century.
In 1960, founding owner Abraham “Abe” Sowma ran an ad in the Burlington Free Press touting the establishment’s “12-year record of serving people from all over the world.”
The ad noted that the state’s “first supper club” was open daily from 7 a.m. until midnight, that it had a cocktail lounge and coffee shop, and that its banquet and convention facilities could accommodate 400. The ad also announced an expansion of, and improvements to, the motel, part of which is now an Econolodge.
Also in 1960, Abe (pronounced A-B) and his wife Kathleen (known as Myrle) purchased the home at 3 Derby Drive, just behind the Brown Derby, where they lived for many years, Abe until his death in 1989 and Myrle until five years before her death in 2009.
Norm and Lindel James, who live on an opposite corner from the Sowmas’ former house, both have a long history with the Derby, and are pained by its deteriorating condition.
“I grew up in Littleton, New Hampshire, and our family used to drive over just to have dinner,” said Lindel. “It was a big, big deal. I thought I was in Hollywood. There were pictures of famous people on the wall, and it was a remarkable place.”
“It was a traditional supper club, above average, immaculately clean,” added Norm. “Many people came from miles around to celebrate an important event there.”
Norm worked as a political reporter for WDEV radio and Channel 3 TV before joining the administration of Democratic Gov. Thomas Salmon in 1973. He and others recall the Derby as the place where many Democratic lawmakers stayed during legislative sessions. (Republicans tended to favor The Montpelier Tavern, now the Capitol Plaza, downtown near the State House.)
“It all began in the 1960s, when Philip Hoff was the first Democrat to be elected governor in 100 years,” said Norm. “The Derby became a haven for the Democrats.”
Not that Republicans feared to tread there. In those days, it was common for legislators of all stripes, lobbyists, reporters, and locals to socialize together at various watering holes in the area.
Norm remembers buttonholing Gov. Deane Davis, a Republican who served between Hoff and Salmon, as he came out of a meeting room at the Derby and, not paying attention, almost walked into the ladies’ room.
Art Ristau of Barre, a member of the Hoff administration, called the Derby “sui generis” — a place like no other where people felt comfortable and relaxed.
Ristau remembers Gov. Hoff holding small meetings at the Derby, whether to avoid the press or for other reasons. He and others said conversations happened and deals were struck most anywhere — in the restaurant, at the bar, in meetings and even in the motel rooms.
Tom Slayton, a political reporter for the Times Argus and Rutland Herald before becoming editor of Vermont Life, recalled that the Democrats had Thursday night meetings at the Derby that they euphemistically called “band practice.” Said Slayton: “They’d just go up and drink and talk and connive.” And, of course, reporters like Slayton would show up trying to sniff out story tips.
Since the Derby was the Democrats’ home away from home, it was also where the party’s state committee sometimes met and where the Washington County committee held fund-raisers. Scott Skinner, a Middlesex attorney who chaired the county committee, said the group would host an annual legislative dinner that attracted members of both parties.
Skinner also remembers a bipartisan event at the Derby honoring Vermont’s lieutenant governors. He said all spoke with great wit and grace about what was considered, at the time, to be a fairly inconsequential post. What was especially funny was that the organizers had forgotten to invite former Lt. Gov. Robert Babcock Sr. Fortunately, Babcock had caught wind of the event and came anyway, adding his own humor to the evening.
Skinner also remembers Gov. Salmon, wearing “a green leisure suit” and referring to himself in the third person as “this governor,” being heckled by a state senator who was “in his cups” and kept shouting, “Who is this governor? Who is this governor?”
Drinking was a given on many occasions, and sometimes got out of hand. Ristau remembers an assistant attorney general and a state police colonel having a heated argument that turned violent, resulting in the attorney being knocked out and having to be revived.
He also remembers a Rutland lobbyist collapsing one night, prompting a worried Abe Sowma to call an ambulance. Asked what was wrong with the man, the first responder coolly replied: “Nothing. He’s only drunk.”
Shenanigans aside, people remember the characters and the political atmosphere of the Derby’s heyday with great fondness. “I miss it the way it was,” said Norm James, referring to both the time period and the physical space.
“It was an exciting time for politics in Vermont,” he said. “Politics didn’t mean intransigence; it was accommodation. It was political, not personal. Most people respected the views and the attitudes of others.”
As Slayton put it, the Derby was part of central Vermont’s original social network. “It was a party every night,” said another observer, speaking of gatherings at the Derby and similar venues in Barre, Montpelier and Berlin that, collectively, offered live music many nights a week.
Editor’s note: In 1984, the Sowmas sold the Brown Derby to a corporation, RAMI, that ran the motel and, for a time, served Indian food in the restaurant. In 1997, RAMI sold to another corporation, COPS, which eventually abandoned the restaurant building and the section of motel units behind the restaurant. It still operates the motel units adjacent to the restaurant building as an Econolodge.
Irene Racz, now retired, is a former journalist, consultant and nonprofit executive who covered political events and enjoyed many social occasions at the Brown Derby. She has lived two blocks from the Derby since 1985.
Memories of a Brown Derby Dishwasher
by Bill Pelton
MONTPELIER — In the fall of 1974, armed with a theater degree from Syracuse University, driving a newly purchased 1967 Econoline van and settling into a 150-year-old farmhouse with no hot water (but rent-free), I got my first post-collegiate job: dishwasher at the Brown Derby restaurant.
Although I had received a good liberal arts education, and certainly had some practical skills that might have gained me more suitable employment, I had had a dream of opening a whole foods restaurant and being a homesteader in the state where I grew up.
When my initial interview with a bank revealed that I had little cash, only two months of restaurant experience at a Howard Johnson’s and no formal business plan, I was politely (and unsurprisingly) shown the door sans capital for my dream enterprise. And so I set about getting some experience, as well as paying down my school loan at a hefty $50 a month.
For a vegetarian like myself, working in the kitchen at the Brown Derby was a sort of hell, or at least purgatory. In addition to scrubbing pots and running hundreds of plates through the dishwasher, I had to shuck oysters; slice open live lobsters’ bellies to receive the indignity of a Ritz cracker-crumb stuffing before broiling; and retrieve items from the walk-in cooler, where slabs of sirloin hung before they were sliced, broiled and whisked out to the waiting customers. However onerous these tasks were, they were made tolerable, at least in moments, by the generally good-natured staff.
Chefs Ron, Ted and Myna would share a few cooking skills. Hostess Peg and servers Pat, Carmie and Barb were cordial and seemed empathetic towards us lost souls in the scullery, though we still had to make sure things were in their proper place, order and time.
Owner Abe Sowma was a mysterious figure to me, because he was not often in the kitchen. When I screwed up the courage to ask for a raise from minimum wage after I’d been there for six months, he declined, and I was gone not long after.
It had given me a start, though, and a couple of years later I had worked my way to head cook at MJ Friday’s (the space now occupied by La Puerta Negra), which, although it had its own kind of drama, provided opportunity for creativity in the kitchen.
MJ’s was a lively place, and beautifully decorated, but I’ll always remember the quiet elegance of the Brown Derby dining room, with its red upholstered walls, the elegant hostess and gracious servers and Chef Myna admonishing us, “Don’t forget the charm!” — by which she meant the plates’ garnish of parsley.
And as I departed the Derby one of the last times, I received the gift of a chef’s knife — my first — which, after having worked in a number of restaurants and owned two small cafés, I use faithfully at home to this day.
Bill Pelton, a longtime Montpelier resident, was interim director of the T.W. Wood Gallery during its move from Vermont College to Barre Street, is active in local theater and film projects as an actor and videographer and serves as sexton at the Unitarian Church.