The Window Arrives
by Tom Kaufhold
It was Friday afternoon May 3, 2019, the Seacoast LGBT History Project Committee was putting the final touches on an exhibit of the artifacts and ephemera that they had collected during the prior four years. A gentleman walked into the Portsmouth Athenaeum where we were setting up and asked us if we'd like what he found in the attic of the Press Room which is located at 70 Daniel St in Portsmouth. He had a package about three feet by three feet wrapped in cardboard pieces and taped with packing tape. When he opened the cardboard packaging inside was a glass panel from a door and it said “Sagamore Republican Club.” We instantly added the sign to the exhibit. New Press Room co-owner Chris Greiner had found a reference to the club in an article about the upcoming exhibit written by Proprietor Sherry Wood. The sign started a journey into our discovery of the private clubs in Portsmouth.
The Sagamore Club
The first time Sagamore Social Club at 70 Daniel Street was listed in a City Directory was in 1959. In1956 according to the NH State Business Records, the Seaport Club was incorporated and did business as the Akropolis Greek American Club. Patron Dick Lishman recalled,
“I remember you had to ring the bell at the top of the stairs before you were let in. Someone would eyeball you through the little window in the door. Gay bars in those days had to be 'private clubs' in order to operate. We always knew it as the Sagamore Club.” Wayne April.
“I fondly remember Hector (the owner) many times answering the door on the second floor with a giant rubber penis suspended down his leg and resting on his shoe. He took delight in doing this - especially to new clientele. He was loved by all.” Russell T.
“I can also remember one particularly gay evening when people went up to the third floor and we’re dancing. The floor, I kid you not, was moving up and down a few inches. I got the hell out of there because I was certain that the floor would crash down into the second floor and then who knew what” Russell T.
“Sagamore was where I met my partner. I can remember sitting on one side of the corner of the bar while he was sitting on the opposite side. He was 12 years younger and bought me a beer. (Most expensive beer anyone has ever bought for me.)” Russell T.
The Seaport Club/Members
The Seaport Cub moved to a location at 400 Route 1 bypass behind the current U-Haul and former Frank Jones Center. You had to knock at an unmarked door to get in and you had to be a member, though memberships could be bought at the door. The Seaport Club stayed at this location until 1986 when they moved to 55 Green St. and started doing business as “Members.” A similar member-only policy was in effect. The set-up inside had two floors with an area open two floors high that served as the dance floor and stage for shows. The club was well known for the many shows and events it hosted and bringing stripers from Montreal Canada. Due to a loss of lease the club closed in 1996.
Some of the men from Members started going to the women’s club called Desert Hearts at 946 Route 1 Bypass. Desert Hearts had it’s beginning at Iris.
In 1980, Randon Eddy decided the seacoast area needed a lesbian club where woman could meet and socialize in a fun, comfortable and safe space. Her partner in the project, Mercie Chick, found the old Napa Auto Parts storage basement at 40 Pleasant St. in Portsmouth. While crawling on hands and knees to see under all the hanging mufflers, she felt, with some effort, the space had potential to be a club.
Iris opened without a liquor license on New Year’s Eve, 1980. Without any advertising and just by word of mouth the club had 75 women show up on its inaugural evening. With it being a private club, people were required to join Iris.
By December the club expanded to the first floor of 40 Pleasant after an insurance company vacated the space. This space was used for quiet talks, group meetings, pool and just a place to rest from the outside stresses.
“It was always billed as a Women’s Club. A safe place for women to visit and leave any harassment or stress from the outside, sometime unforgiving world, behind.” Randon Eddy
Photographer Deb Cram described entering Iris in a basement on Pleasant Street as “what Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz saw when she opened the door to her freshly fallen house; it went from black and white to color and that’s when I saw the light to another world; another way to be; another way to live. I wasn’t alone anymore. There were other people like me at this place called Iris. It was a “women’s bar” and that’s where people went to be a community and feel safe…Why did we have to be hidden in a basement though? Why couldn’t anyone feel safe about saying they liked the same sex or were considering changing their own?” Deb Cram, “This is me: Photographer is part of Seacoast LGBT history” Foster’s Aug 21, 2018
In 1982 Randon left the club to her partner, Mercie Chick, to operate. Iris successfully continued through to 1987 with a membership of over 600. The owners never encountered any negative issues from the city of Portsmouth while operating what may very well have been the first organized lesbian club in the NH seacoast and the only private lesbian club in New England. The club closed in 1987.
Kats/Desert Hearts/Club 1 North
In 1988 City Wide Limited was incorporated by women who had been going to Iris. They did business as “Kats” at 816 Lafayette Rd in Hampton. They stayed at this location until 1992 when they moved to 946 Route 1 Bypass under the name Desert Hearts. When the men’s club Member’s closed in 1996, some of the men started going to Desert Hearts. Desert Hearts closed in 2002 and began doing business as Club 1 North which was more of a mixed men/women club. Club 1 North survived at 946 Route 1 Bypass until 2010. All of these businesses were under the City Wide Limited Inc.
By 2010 there were no more gay bars in Portsmouth. Paul Carragher moved to the area from a bigger city and “wanted a better bar, a way to meet people and socialize,” so he and friends started a once-a-month impromptu takeover of a local bar. Each month about 60 people would attend… It’s been growing organically and getting out the information by word of mouth,” says Carragher. “They do this in every big city and when I moved here from San Diego four years ago I saw no gay bar here. This is what we did” (“Portsmouth Guerrilla Gay Bar builds community” Nov 3, 2011).]
The Guerrilla bars are no longer happening in 2022
Sagamore Republican Club Sign
So how did the Sagamore Republican Club sign end up at the Press Room and what does it mean? People who went to the Sagamore club do not remember seeing a glass sign. According to the NH Secretary of State, the Night Owl Club was formed as a business in Portsmouth at 44-46 Bridge Street in 1938. This club listed alternative names of the Sagamore Republican Club of the City of Portsmouth NH and the Greek American Republican Club of the City of Portsmouth. The best guess is that the Greek Club and Sagamore Republican Club moved to 70 Daniel St. The Republican club must have taken the door sign with them. We know there are people in Portsmouth that could tell more stories about these clubs, and we hope they do.
“The world has changed, but for the better, and people have become more understanding of differences and the change of culture and it's a wonderful thing… but it's taken a lot of effort, a lot of struggles with a lot of people to get here.” Dick Lishman, owner Seaport Club/Members