The Soul of Round Hill

Tucked away in backcountry, Bill Strain’s family has been a part of Greenwich history for nearly a century. We take a stroll down memory lane with the iconic Greenwich native



Bill, wearing his customary Round Hill Service Station uniform, peruses his cherished Round Hill Volunteer Fire Company photo album.

Photograph by visko hatfield

“As my grandfather used to say, this is God’s country—right here.” A gentle snow was falling on Round Hill, and I found Bill Strain out in it, surveying the little corner of the world where he has lived all but two of his eighty years. “No,” he says with a shy smile, “I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.”

Bill Strain’s grandfather, William Sr., bought the Round Hill Store in 1915, after his general store in Armonk burned to the ground. Ever since, the Strain family has presided over the tiny but vital commercial hub of this historic backcountry neighborhood. Bill Strain, lean and mellow-voiced, was dressed as usual in his blue service station uniform with its embroidered name patch. Despite arthritis and other insults of age, he retains a youthful air—though it can cloud over a little when he reflects on the passage of time. In a moment I would ask him about all the changes he’s seen in a lifetime on Round Hill, once known for its productive farms, then for its gentlemen’s estates, and finally for its hedge-fund palaces. But first he was fleshing out his cast of characters.

“I thought of my grandfather as almost a preacher, because he would preach to me every night,” Bill explains from the warmth of his office, a converted carriage shed behind the store and service station at Round Hill and Old Mill roads. “Not out of the Bible, but politics and right and wrong. He’d corner me at the kitchen table and shake his finger, say things like, ‘Never a borrower or a lender be.’ For hours. Customers in the store, he’d get talking to them and preaching to them and shaking his finger at them, and he would follow them all the way out to their car.”

In about 1900 William Strain married Bertha Howland, a direct descendant of John Howland, the Mayflower voyager swept overboard during a ferocious storm; he survived by grabbing hold of a topsail halyard and lived to be about eighty-two. (Howland’s descendants also include Presidents Bush and Franklin Roosevelt.) William and Bertha’s only child, Francis, born in 1909, was among the last generation to attend the one-room schoolhouse at the corner of Round Hill Road and John Street, now part of a private residence. 

 

The grown-up Francis was a creative businessman who had no intention of sitting behind a store counter all day. It was he who started the kerosene delivery business in 1935, which evolved into the fuel distribution company that Bill Strain expanded and still runs; and he who added two fuel pumps next to the store in 1937—after winning a four-year legal battle against his wealthy neighbors: “Round Hill Loses to Gas Pumps” read the headline in The New York Times. And it was Francis who, when the Merritt Parkway opened in 1938, converted an old Willys police car into a pick-up truck and an old Packard into a wrecker—the foundation of a towing and repair business that is today’s Round Hill Service Station. “He had fantastic ideas about what do, but he wasn’t so great at following through,” Bill remarks. Much to William Sr.’s dismay, Francis “borrowed all the time” in order to finance his ideas, and then struggled to keep things afloat. Yet he was also a canny fifty-year member of the Representative Town Meeting. Meanwhile, Constance, his wife of sixty-seven years, was the kindly presence in the Round Hill Store.

One sees, in the Strains’ nearly century-long occupancy of their Round Hill corner, the theme of history always close at hand. That history should properly begin with the store itself, though its origins are hazy. Nathaniel Knapp, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier, appears to have founded it in 1812 (rather than the oft-given year of 1801), on the woodsy lot catty-corner to its present location. By 1830 the Round Hill community had flowered sufficiently to add a post office to the store, with Nathaniel himself as first postmaster. His and Elizabeth Close Knapp’s eldest son, Odle, ran the bustling enterprise until he went “over to the vast majority,” as his obituary had it, in 1888. (His son Nathaniel A. Knapp succeeded him and moved the store across the street.) The humble wood frame structure has changed remarkably little since then, though it has assumed the well-settled air of a country landmark.

In 2003 Bill’s daughter Robin Vanacore and her husband, John, a history buff, bought the business with the two-fold goal of modernizing its services and emphasizing its pedigree. Lunches are now available for take-out; goods from fresh produce to Round Hill Store coffee mugs can be had; and vintage trains and board games decorate the upper shelves. Walking into the Round Hill Store is a bit like stepping into the past. Meanwhile, the store attracts all kinds: On any given day, one sees work trucks and Bentleys parked in front of the store’s ancient front porch.

Right: Bill served as chief of the Round Hill Fire Volunteer Company at just twenty-seven years of age.

All in the Family

In a curious twist, Bill Strain was brought into the world by Nathaniel A.’s son, Dr. C. Stanley Knapp, on July 26, 1931. Bill was the first of Francis and Constance’s three children; he lived with his parents, grandparents and siblings Richard and Joan in the roomy apartment above the Round Hill Store. He has not moved far away: In 1954 he built the tidy clapboard ranch house a stone’s throw from the store, on Old Mill Road, where he still lives with his wife, Jackie.

The Strain men are distinguished by their strict rectitude. “Our family were absolute teetotalers,” Bill says. “There was no alcohol allowed in our home, period.” The late Richard deviated somewhat from the narrow path; he was “the black sheep, Peck’s bad boy,” who enjoyed sneaking smokes and drinks and throwing stones through the windows of old buildings. As for Bill: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke—but I won’t deny anything else.” Bill’s tongue can be salty, unlike William’s or Francis’s. “I remember working in the garage one day, I was having trouble with something, and I said, ‘Gar-durned fricking regulator’”(no doubt cleaning things up a bit for me). Then he noticed his father standing over him with a look of profound disapproval. All Francis said was, “That’s some vocabulary you got there.”


Left to right: John McArthur, first Round Hill Fire Station chief, Fairfield County Fire Chief’s emergency plan annual dinner. Bill still belongs to the organization. Francis Strain, CS Edgar, unidentified person, Bill Strain (in truck), Chief Stewart Potter, Chief John McArthur, Dick Strain and David Frankel in front of the first new fire engine ever purchased by the Round Hill Fire Station (Visko Hatfield)

The older Bill gets, the more he finds himself reflecting on his Round Hill youth. “Every day I hit those memories,” he says. “And at night I dream about them.” His earliest memories begin around age four, with the Christmas gift of a toy car festooned with colored electric lights, whose bulbs brother Richard promptly ate.  The same year, he entered the world of work, happily. “As soon as I could walk, my grandfather had me packing cans on the shelves, with the labels pointing out—the older cans in front. And I swept the floor, always sweeping toward the back. Otherwise you were sweeping the customers out.”

There was only one customer for whom Bill could have reversed his broom strokes. “Cale Merritt. He was an old man when I was a little kid, and he was terribly dirty. The flies would swarm around him. And he stank. Terrible! He’d come into the store to buy his sarsaparilla—he called it ‘sassy fella’—and Uneeda Biscuits. And we had water pistols. He was the only person my father never yelled at us for squirting our water pistols at.”

After school Bill would help Francis (or Constance, who drove the truck during the war) deliver the kerosene that heated 1930s stoves. He remembers dark early evenings, holding the flashlight and steadying the funnel for his father as kerosene streamed out of the tank faucet and into five-gallon cans. It was along the kerosene route that young Bill first set eyes on the girl he would marry, Jackie Ingersoll, who lived on Hickory Kingdom Road in Bedford. “She was a real little girl, three years younger than me. Diapers and nothing else.” Years passed. “We had Friday night square dances up at the Round Hill Community House, and local people would be the band playing, and the sexton would do the calling. We had a blast and it didn’t cost anything—you chipped in 25 cents for cider and doughnuts. And one night out of the clear, Jackie and her cousin and her brother, a whole carload, came to the dance.” Here Bill’s eyes twinkle as though nothing more needs to be said. He married Jackie in 1953—during his two-year hitch in the army—and the couple has five daughters: Robin, Sandy, Barbara, Holly and Jackie, known as Pip.

Men of Service

Bill discovered in boyhood that a life of adventure could be had among the bucolic ridges and valleys of Round Hill. “Dad would get up in the middle of the night to go down to the Parkway with his wrecker. He did it for the Town of Greenwich, too. He covered anything north of the Parkway; he was on call for accidents and breakdowns. If he needed help, know who he called?” Bill taps his chest. Then there was Victor Close, who owned Round Hill Farm. “Once in a while it was a big treat for me to go home at night with ‘Uncle’ Vic’s milk delivery driver, Roy Leach, and the next day he’d wake me up at three a.m., give me breakfast, and we’d go out in his Diamond T and deliver bottles of milk all morning, starting on Greenwich Avenue.”


Memorial Day parade, Fire Chief Stewart Potter, John McArthur, Donald Lovejoy, unidentified person, Police Chief Jack Gleason, First Selectman Carlton Gisborn, Porter Waterman; (back row) CS Edgar and Francis Strain (Visko Hatfield)

During the Second World War, though only fourteen, Bill patrolled the Merritt Parkway in the wrecker. His great friend in those years was Lunsford Richardson III, the namesake grandson of the man who founded the Richardson Vicks empire, best known for cold remedies like Vicks VapoRub. Richardson lived on a hilltop estate just past First Church of Round Hill, but, as a self-professed car nut, worked for Francis in the garage. “I remember one night, a cold night like tonight, Pa Strain got a call that a car had flipped over and pinned a man’s arm under it,” Bill says. “This was during the war, and everybody’s tires were pretty ragged, patched up again and again. There were a good many accidents. Well, by the time we got there, the patrolman on the scene had figured out that the guy had an artificial arm.”

While life was mostly tranquil on Round Hill, one threat remained constant: fire. Once a back country structure went up in flames, there was really no way to save it, and many a fine old farmhouse burned like matchsticks as trucks lumbered up from town. After a big dairy barn burned in the mid-1940s, Donald Lovejoy, a New York stockbroker who lived on Burying Hill Road, spearheaded a drive to start a fire company out among the farms and estates. Housed in a disused barn across the street from the Round Hill Store, the Round Hill Volunteer Fire Company commenced operations in 1948 and responded to calls aboard a 1924 pumper known as “Old Smokey.”

Bill Strain was a charter member of an eclectic group of firefighters included millionaires, farm laborers and the Right Reverend Henry Knox Sherrill, presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Among Bill’s firehouse contemporaries was the late William T. Close, who would become a renowned medical doctor, fighting the Ebola virus in Africa. (His daughter Glenn, the actress, haunted the penny candy jars at the store, and her brother Alex retailed his excellent charcoal drawings there.) “We had some pretty serious fires, but most of the time we were able to save these places,” says Bill, who served as Round Hill chief from 1958 to 1974. (His nephew Rick Strain is chief today.) “Once in a while a fire starts in a house at night and nobody’s home, and it burns until a cop sees it or something. And by that time, the sky’s all lit up with it, it’s gone.”

A few fires stick out in his memory. “I went to one on Lake Avenue, the Troggets’, and I was the first one there with the truck. The man living upstairs had jumped out the window and broken his leg.” Bill raps his knuckles on his desk. “But we’ve never had a fatality on one of ours.” Usually fires start from lightning strikes or bad wiring, but there have also been fires of mysterious origin, including a spate of them at horse stables in the early seventies. Another one gutted the Tamarack clubhouse in April 1967. “The guy on guard woke up with the place burning around him, and he tried to call the fire department, but the phone was already burned out. So he ran to the neighbor, and the neighbor wouldn’t let him in because he was black.”

Winds of Change

After Bill left military service, in 1954, he “bounced right back into the garage,” and continued fixing cars into the seventies. “But I was getting a little tired of it, greasy fingers all the time and black nails, bruised black nails.” So began a phase of business expansion, and Bill spent long hours on the road, supplying fuel to New York state parks and police and fire departments, and motor oil to area gas stations. In 1974 Bill thought his fuel hauling would be interrupted by a new job—that of town fire chief—but for reasons unknown the tentative job offer evaporated. “Lucky for me,” he says now. One night shortly into the new chief’s term, twenty-four-year-old Greenwichite Peter Leonard broke into Carol Lanes, a bowling alley on the Port Chester–Greenwich border, and set a fire to cover up his crime. On the other side of a common wall, the popular Gulliver’s nightclub was in full swing. Twenty-four young patrons died in the crush to escape the smoke and flames—the worst fire disaster in town history. It was also the messiest, owing to jurisdictional ambiguities: The fire started in Green-wich, the deaths occurred in New York.

Bill never liked working in the store. Like his father, he needs to set his hands to making and tinkering. Today he finds solace in his old heated barn of a workshop, fixing vintage cars for customers; sometimes he fashions from scratch metal gadgets that stopped being made long ago. When he showed me his workshop, he had just finished sprucing up an old Woody and was at work on a 1950-ish Fiat. “What’s kept me young? Work,” he says. “Without it I’d go crazy.”

In quiet moments Bill Strain is apt to contemplate the past—perhaps especially since his wife suffered a stroke a few years ago. “She still gets around like a teenager, but her mind isn’t there anymore.” And so it is natural for him to dwell, with mounting frequency, in memory’s sympathetic glow. Bill remembers horses dragging V-plows through heavy snows; he remembers thousands of people thronging to the Scottish Games held each July on the grassy estate of C. A. Moore, the metals magnate and Peary expedition member; he remembers knitting blankets for the soldiers during the Second World War; he remembers cows roaming in the pastures on either side of Round Hill Road; and he remembers serving as driver to Round Hill resident Leopold Stokowski (“Boy could he talk!”) and his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt (“Sat back there and didn’t make a peep.”).

Change may be painful anywhere, but it seems especially so on Round Hill because of the intensity of feeling it inspires. Louise Celestia Mead Feltus, born in 1871, wrote in her 1948 family history, Our Two Centuries in North Greenwich, Connecticut, 1728–1924, “With the coming of the automobile with its wave of desire for country homes … family after family sold their places and moved away. We watched them go with aching hearts.” Now it is the Strains—new folk back then—who are feeling something of that ache.

Bill mentions the expansiveness of the old estates—“some of them were a mile square”—and all the people who worked on them. “They were sort of a second community in themselves. They would be the ones who would go to the Friday night dances, the ones who would have basketball games in the community house. There’s none of that anymore.” The estates have broken into smaller pieces and the families that lived on them have scattered. Bill turned meditatively to the window. “It didn’t matter how much money they had, they were people and they treated you like people. The Klipsteins, the Moores, the Wilshires, the Richardsons—those people treated us like family.” Today Bill senses the bonds of community loosened and the neighbors grown distant, at least compared to former times. “Well, he says, “I guess I’m old and everybody is moving on.”

But Bill is not that old: he still goes out on fire calls. As we talk, the radio on his belt hisses intermittently and Bill cocks his ear, eaglelike, to see if Round Hill Volunteer Fire Company’s services are required. At one point a call comes through and Bill leaps up with surprising agility. Grinning, he says, “Want to go for a ride?”

 

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