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The oldest gay bathhouse in Chicago — Man’s Country — closed its doors New Year’s Eve after serving as a place for gay men to meet each other for 44 years. The Chicago Tribune had the opportunity to take a tour of the space with owner Ron Ehemann. Ehemann was the partner of Chuck Renslow who opened Man’s Country in 1973.
Thankfully for us, the Tribune filmed their tour and it provides a nice bit of queer history reflective of a time when bathhouses served a meaningful purpose for gay men to be around people just like them.
We’ve transcribed the entire interview with Ehemann here:
From the gay community standpoint, Man’s Country represented when it opened a place where you could go and be free. It was a place where you could go and find somebody to hook up with pre-app days, nowadays you can do it on your phone, but back then you had to go somewhere and meet someone. And this was a place where you could go and meet someone that you knew wanted to do the things that you wanted to do.
He [Chuck Renslow] opened this with the notion that it would be like a country club. You could come here for a day or two days. There would be a number of things to do other than just to come have sex. So we had sunrooms and there was a snack bar. There was a country store. There was entertainment that was going on. There was dancing.
In the original Man’s Country days, so we’re going back to the ’70s and ’80s, we did entertainment four nights a week out of this room. This room was the after party if you’ve done in any of the gay bars in the city you’re liable to be here after that bar closed. We had I think the best sound system in the city and we had DJs and lights and we were the bar that wasn’t a bar so you could stay here 24 hours if you wanted.
In 1987, in a reaction to the drop in business due to AIDS, this room was carved into Bistro 2 which was a dance bar. And from ’87 to ’93, it would see a thousand people on a Friday or Saturday night. We had shows on the stage your Divine, Boy George, Village People, all of the disco divas like Thelma Houston and Pamela Stanley. Bistro closed in ’93 and the room was returned to Man’s Country and we started with male strippers and porn stars. The uniqueness is that you were doing a show but you were still inside of a bathhouse where strippers could strip naked and we did that up until probably four years ago.
Even pre-AIDS, we did STD testing out of here what would become Howard Brown really got its start here. In fact, Chuck underwrote they’re mobile vans so that we could take the testing we were doing here out to the bars, not that we would take it, but they would take the testing out to the bars.
When AIDS hit and health departments in other areas of the country were closing bathhouses or removing doors from the rooms, our reaction was to contact the City Health Department and work very closely with them. We brought in AIDS education. We brought in condoms and from here they spread out to the bars.
Through International Mr. Leather, we actually moved the notion of using condoms from the United States to Europe. It was one of our winners Tom [sic] out of Hamburg, Germany that came here and said, “Oh, this is great. The bars are all handing out condoms. I’m gonna take that back to Europe.”
Nowadays what’s left in the basement, there is a wet area and a very, very large steam room. We used to say it was the largest steam room in the Midwest. I don’t know, it’s the only steam room I always ever in so I don’t know if it was the largest but we said it.
There was a 15-member hot tub down there that’s been closed… showers. On the first floor right now, it’s rooms and lockers. At the back of those rooms, there is a fetish area so we have 10 fetish rooms that have shackles on the double beds and slings in all of those rooms. One room has a St. Andrew’s cross, but that’s our fetish area.
But basically these days, the club has been reduced to lockers and rooms. To me that it’s just always been here and even now I live next door so I can just get up and walk over. I’ll miss it all.