Cars lined the street on Saturday, May 31, to celebrate the 65th Anniversary of Bill’s Luncheonette onDover Chester Rd. in Ironia.
A few hundred people attended The Old Fashioned Block Party from 2 p.m. until dark enjoying free hot dogs, hamburgers, ice-cream and prizes to reminisce on days past and be the first to see the newly renovations to the luncheonette. Family, friends, current and former employees gathered at the building that dates back more than 150 years, and had been used as a general store and post office before converted to a luncheonette.
Third-generation family owner, Bruce Button, 28 of Madison, closed the luncheonette from May 26 to May 30 to complete some minor renovations before the gathering. Among the improvements included a new floor and installation of booths. The well-“needed” changes provided a facelift while maintaining the character of the “charming old structure.”
“Some were concerned on how it would turn out,” says Kathy Crowley-Sheehy of Randolph, mother of Button, and daughter of Bill, who ran the business as Bill’s Luncheonette & General Store until he died eight years ago. Most were “happily surprised” and “loved the remodeling.” They “were thrilled we kept the old feel and charm that was there.”
Located just on the border of Chester and Ironia in Randolph on Dover Chester Rd., Bill’s Luncheonette still thrives after 65 years of business enjoyed by residents in surrounding towns of Randolph, Mendham, Chester and Roxbury. Known for “good prices,” cleanliness and “old country-style diner ambiance,” Bill’s Luncheonette is open for breakfast and lunch.
Some of the customers’ favorite entrees include omelets like the Chile Cheddar Omelet, home fries, pancakes, handmade burgers, “fantastic” homemade Chile, milkshakes and egg-creams.
The specialties are named after people such as the Mom”lette, an omelet made with spinach, tomatoes and swiss cheese; Mister D Sandwich, named after a long-time customer, with taylor ham, egg, swiss cheese, fried onions on a sub roll; Pop’s Pudding, grandpa’s new secret recipe of rice pudding.
Button plans to add some healthier items to his menu, more salad options next to his existing chicken Caesar salad; and plans to increase his ice-cream selection. Customers can get ice-cream cones, sundaes, milkshakes, egg creams, root beer floats and ice-cream sodas.
“With the remodeling we got a new ice cream dipping cabinet with eight flavors of Welsh Farms Ice Cream,” says Sheehy. “Bill’s has always been known for great milkshakes!”
He also plans to keep the restaurant open a little later until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. in the near future to attract more customers who want to eat or enjoy an ice-cream later in the day.
“We get a lot of people that want to come in at three o’clock,” says Sheehy. “Kids want to come in for ice-cream after high school.”
Working on and off at his grandfather’s business since he was 12, Button became the “full-fledged” owner about one year ago.
“When I would come into work, he would wipe tables when he was three years old,” says Sheehy. “He learned from his grandfather when he worked here as a teenager. He started to learn a lot more about the business; learned the tricks in cooking and dealing with customers. You kind of had to do everything when you worked here.”
Before Button took over, Sheehy’s brother, Reggie, ran the business for seven years but passed it on after becoming a police officer in Morris Twp. Reggie took over the business in 2006 when their dad, Bill, died. At that time, he removed the shelves and got rid of the groceries, but kept the luncheonette.
“The general store part wasn’t doing well in recent years because of all the convenience stores and additional supermarkets coming to the area, so when my Dad, Bill, passed away, the grocery portion went with him,” says Sheehy. “We still sell anything we use though. If someone needs eggs or milk or a pound of ham, we can make that happen. We still sell newspapers, orange juice, milk, eggs, baked goods, snacks,” and also sell “a lot” of take-out coffee and sandwiches.
Bill Crowley had established Bill’s Luncheonette & General Store in 1949. Prior to that, the building was used as a general store, owned by Bill’s dad, Robert “Bob” Crawley. Bob purchased the structure in 1941 after moving his family and goat farm from Kansas to Ironia that same year
The origin of the building dates back to 1860, and was owned by David Stryker who operated it as Stryker’s General Store. There he sold butter and eggs from local farmers, as well as milk, flour, sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, candies, packaged and canned goods, says Sheehy.
“It was the only place to buy necessities for miles and miles around,” she says. “The building still retains many of its original windows and doors and lots of character. Its history is long and colorful, and the community has been using it as a meeting place for over a century and a half.”
When the local “iron boom hit,” the area grew and with that the need for a post office, she explains. In 1871, Stryker became the very first Postmaster of Ironia and the Ironia Post Office was created inside his general store. Stryker eventually passed on the general store and building to his son, David R. Stryker, who also became a Postmaster of Ironia.
When the younger Stryker was looking to retire, “Bob Crowley knew he had to keep the store going in his new hometown, so in 1941 he purchased it for around $65, which included $25 for the cash register,” describes Sheehy. The Crowleys also took over the post office, with two of his daughters serving as Postmistress and then Bill as Postmaster, a position he held for 38 years starting in 1944.
“The whole Crowley family chipped in to keep the store going during this time,” says Sheehy.
Working another full-time job in addition to the general store and a goat-dairy farm down the street,Crowley, decided to pass on the general store/Ironia Post-Office to his son Bill.
Bill decided right away to add the luncheonette to the general store/ post office and thus “Bill’s Luncheonette & General Store was born in 1949.
“He wanted to make it his own thing,” says Sheehy. “He was very dedicated,” running the place from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. at night. “My father was a character. My father threw people out if they had their hat on backwards. It was his way of keeping control and making sure that he ran a respectful place. He was old-schooled. It was an insult when you wore your hat backwards. You couldn’t walk in with mud on your boots; he would yell at people for that.”
In addition to the luncheonette, Bill helped to plan and build the Ironia Shopping Center in 1970, when he moved the Ironia Post Office to that location just 100 yards away. He remained Postmaster until his retirement in 1982; ran both the post office and luncheonette in the two locations every day; and also managed the Ironia Shopping Center for many years.
“We all worked here,” says Sheehy, an employee there since she was 11. “The rule was you had to be able to reach the counter with a cup of coffee.” Sheehy waited on customers, cleaned, dusted, swept, cooked.
“Over the years, so much has taken place inside the walls of this building,” says Sheehy. “It has sold wagons and wagon wheels, clothes, hay, feed, coal, kerosene, tobacco, ice cream, fresh local dairy and farm products, groceries, drugs, toys, pizza, deli items, anything from soup to nuts. It has been an outlet for Sears & Roebuck, a gas station, a deer-checking station, a pizzeria, as well as a club meeting hall. For decades it had a juke box and pinball and video games, too.
“Though times do change, since 1860, this building continues to be the heart and hub of the surrounding community,” says Sheehy.
“It’s a meeting place,” she says. “It’s where people have come in; you strike up a conversation or you run into a neighbor. So many time people come in and see someone they haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s that kind of place where everybody talks to everybody. My son always says, ‘it’s almost like a bar but without the alcohol.’”
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