Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Where We Are (Part 3): Craig and Gail Elliott, former longtime owners of the Old Egremont Store in North Egremont

I grew up down the road from the store and my family went to “Craig’s” nearly every day of my childhood, to pick up the mail, newspaper, roast beef grinder, milk, candy or a pretzel.

Author’s note: I grew up down the road from the store and my family went to “Craig’s” nearly every day of my childhood, to pick up the mail, newspaper, roast beef grinder, milk, candy or a pretzel. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

To read Part 2 of this series, click here.

Craig: I learned a valuable lesson from your father. If I called him Professor, he treated me different. If I called him Mr. Siegel, he treated me different. If it’s, ‘How you doing today, Dave?’, then, it’s, ‘Good, Craig, how are you?’, and we’re on the same level. I used that the rest of my life.

My father was born and raised in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He was working for the railroad. When they came up from the city, with electric, when they got to White Plains, they had to switch over to diesel to come up to Hillsdale and his job was changing the engines. My mother was a telephone operator in New York City. She was from Delmar, Iowa. How did they meet? Dating in New York City.

My cousin Bobby had a store in North Hillsdale. He sold washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, and he says to my father, ‘Hey, there’s a store in North Egremont for sale. I think you should come up and look at it.’ This is 1936. He came up and he said, ‘Yep, I’m gonna buy it.’

I was born in ’52. Born at Fairview [Hospital], and raised there above the store. I remember the Barrington Fair. It used to amaze me watching them bringing the money up from the Fair, and the cops standing out there with their rifles and guns and I’m like, ‘Who the hell is gonna rob them?’

Gail: We’d get days off from school for the fair.

Craig: As little kids, we’d go get some corn or go get some tomatoes, and then you’d enter them, say, ‘I grew ’em.’ Then you’d get passes to go all week to the fair, because you were a Four H.

Craig and Gail Elliott today, having sold The Old Egremont Store in 2007. Photo by Sheela Clary.

My [draft] number was 56. I get my draft notice, and I’m down to the [Green River], at the Boice Road bridge, a few days later with John Fratalone and we’re shooting this old Civil War pistol. The gun went off and hit me in the leg. The bullet went all the way through. Doc Namiot says, ‘What were you doing, quick draw?’ It was just a 100-year-old pistol. If you just touched it, it would go off. So when I get up to do my draft physical, I’m on crutches. The lady comes out, says, ‘Are you supposed to be here?’

‘Hell no.’

‘Well, what are you doing here?;

‘Would you believe me if I called you up and said I got shot in the leg?’

‘Will you go home and you get a doctor’s note?’

I never got a doctor’s note. I just disappeared in the paperwork because there wasn’t computers. I figured I was gonna be the last fool in Vietnam.

[Gail and I] met each other [in] seventh grade [at Mount Everett]. She went to New Marlborough, I went to Egremont for first grade, then South Egremont for second and third. Then you went down to Sheffield Center, which was fourth, fifth, and sixth. Then when you went to the high school, New Marlborough came over. I saw Gail, and I said that’s the one I want. Imagine that. We’ve been married 51 years.

Gail: I was 19, heading for 20, and you were 18. We graduated in ’70, in June …

Craig: In June, and then I went to Galveston, Texas. My brother had a job there at a shipyard, and he says, ‘Hey, I got a great job, you want to deactivate a nuclear ship?’ I called her up, ‘So, would you like to get married? Come on down. Catch a plane, we’ll get married in Galveston.’ Just six people at the wedding.

Gail: Yeah, the neighbors, his brother, his brother’s wife, three kids. And I think a couple neighbors and their kids or something.

Craig: We went to Pepys Pizza Parlor for dinner. People couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re really in here after your wedding?’

‘Yeah, we want pizza.’

‘Oh, that’s on the house!’

[In Galveston,] I was working in an auto body shop, and I almost bought the business. Then I got a phone call, ‘Your father’s dying of cancer. Would you come home and run the store?’

Reverend Chase was the minister in town, with the Baptist Church. And I think he also did the Congregational Church. I always liked that man a lot. After he left Egremont, he moved up on Mount Washington, but he’d still come down and visit me at the store.

Gail: Nice man. Great man.

Craig: He told me one day, he says, ‘I never had a bigger crowd at the Baptist church as for your father’s funeral. I couldn’t figure out where we were gonna put all the people.’

‘Well hang around, because you gotta do my burial, too.’

My father bought the store on March 15, 1936. I bought the store March 15, 1972, and we were there till 2007. I tried to sell the store on March 15. But our lawyers screwed that up, so it was April 23. We sold it to Bert and Mary Harrington. They were there five years. [Frank and Dianna Pastier are the current owners.]

Craig: The characters from the ’70s were amazing. An old Italian, Frank Santoni, sticks out in my mind. When I was a child, he was the famous gardener in North Egremont. He took care of all the big estates on Shun Toll Road. He fought in World War I. Got shot with a machine gun in the neck and the nose. There was no cartilage in his nose. He would come in the store and [press on the end of his nose] and his nose would go flat against his face and I’d go, ‘Holy shit.’

He got $600 twice a year from the Italian government. He would come in and waving his check. ‘Can you cash-a my check?’

I’d go, ‘Frank, I don’t have $600.’ You know, this is 1972.

He’d pull out his Luger out of his pants and wave it around, ‘No son of a bitch gonna take my money!’

I’d go, ‘Frank. You can’t go to town and into the bank with that pistol in your pants.’ And out the door he’d go and get in his car and go to town.

My father, on Sundays, he would collect debts. We’d give credit to people and go around on Sundays and collect what he was owed. And when we pulled into Frank Santoni’s yard, I remember him saying, ‘Don’t get out of the car.’ My father would get out of the car and start screaming, ‘Frank! It’s Joe!’ All of a sudden, the outhouse door opens and now out comes a double barrel shotgun. Frank had a gun in every room of the house. He was so paranoid about somebody coming to kill him.

The early ’60s, [The movie] ‘Pretty Poison‘ was filmed there [at the store]. I took the day off school to watch. Tony Perkins, Tuesday Weld. They put a fake phone booth up in front of the store, and Tony Perkins is on the phone pretending he’s calling the police, and the cruiser comes down Prospect Lake Road, whips in, and the cop has a Barrington special. Pulls his gun out and all of a sudden they all start screaming, ‘Stop, stop!’

He forgot to take the bullets out of the gun. So, kind of like the movie ‘Rust‘ only it didn’t happen. Steve Keston was a movie producer, lived in Alford, was friends with my father. He had just moved up here. He did the movie ‘Alice’s Restaurant.’ He was involved in that.

I had good help. I had honest help. I had Lightning. I called him ‘Lightning’ because he just moved so slow. I used to accuse him, ‘Do I have to drive a stake next to you and see if you’ve moved?’ But Lightning, he was petrified to answer the telephone. I was like, ‘Lightning, all you got to say is, “Hello, Old Egremont Store. Can I help you?” Learn that.’ Never started a lawn mower in his life. ‘OK, let me teach you how to start a lawn mower.’ Did not know how to drive a nail with a hammer. ‘Let me show you how you do that.’

Gail: I think about all the employees we had over the years. Martha, 18 years.

Craig: Gail Rivers, 18 years. I hated training help. So if you pay ’em right, treat them right, they’ll stay with you. Martha would say, ‘I got a job offer.’

‘What is it?’ I say.

‘Vacuuming swimming pools.’

I said, ‘Go for it. But what are you gonna do in the winter?’ You know, make them think about it a little bit. It’s worth paying one or two dollars more to keep your help.

People used to come up on weekend, Friday nights, get their groceries or vegetables. You know, back then you’d carry produce and meats and chicken. Then as the parents died and the kids came up, they’d get their inheritance, buy a BMW, they’d come in, buy a New York Times, and go, ‘How do I get to Guido’s?’ So you slowly had to convert yourself into a convenience store.

The other problem you had is the wholesalers all went out of business. I couldn’t carry the variety, had no place to get it. When I first took over, you sold fly swatters, you sold Sorel boots. My father sold dungarees and paint. All these things just slowly go away.

The campground was wonderful in the summer, at one time. When they put in this electronic gate, you had to use a card to go in and out, to stop people from just sneaking in, that for some reason really changed sales. It was like an aggravation for people to take that card to leave the campground, come down and get a case of beer and go back to the campsite. They learned to bring everything they needed with them, from home.

There was the day a car drove through the front of the building. It was a Sunday morning. You’re handing out the Times and you got a line of people to the door. And this lady from the campground’s backing up, and so was this van next to her, Paul McBride. He tapped her and hit her on the side of the car. She thought he was gonna run over her, so she threw the car in drive and floored it. Came right through the windows.

All of a sudden I see an ice cream freezer going across the floor and just miss these three kids. Could have killed them. The car’s half in the building, and the tires are just spinning on the wooden floor.

Gail: It was an interesting morning.

Craig: I wasn’t too good with my language. I had all the video movies there, and it was just movies going through the air, the freezer sliding across the floor. This must have been in the late ’80s maybe early ’90s. I don’t need this happening August 4. Busiest time of the year, and I gotta go plywood up the front of the place.

Biggest headache was the gas pumps. I saw nothing but liability problems. The gas leaks, and the clean up. You lost your business. When that first started, you know, testing, I remember Ray Delmolino in South Egremont, gas was leaking out into the brook. And that was a half-million-dollar cleanup, where the Salisbury Bank is now. Then Whitaker’s where that Chinese restaurant was [on Main Street, in Great Barrington] the gas was showing up in Searles Castle, they were smelling it. Another half-million-dollars.

I used to pay as much as you would buy the gas out of the pump in town. I had Steve Agar bringing the gas to me. He has to make a profit. You were allowed 17 cents a gallon back then, profit. So I’m paying $1.26 for a gallon of gas, and then I gotta mark it up where I could have come in town and bought it for $1.26. I looked like a thief. But people would come in constantly and go, ‘I got ten dollars’ worth of gas.’

I’d look out and go, ‘No you didn’t, you got twenty-five.’

‘You can read them pumps from here?’

‘When it’s your money you’ll learn to read ’em.’

Gail: I think that’s why your eyes are so bad now.

Craig: Yeah, my eyes are going to hell now, but I could read them.

Gail: He could stand at the counter, and look out, and see.

Craig: There was more people coming in the area, but I never blamed anybody for selling their house. I mean, they paid $30,000 for it, and somebody comes in, says, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a $350,000 or $400,000 for it.’ Then he goes to Pittsfield, replaces it for $90,000 or $100,000, and they have some retirement money.

What really shocked me the most was going home at night in the winter. As I left the store, going down 71, there’d be two houses with lights on. That told me how much was weekend homes in North Egremont. Janice Swain was home. Mrs. Gleason was home. Other than that, no lights.

We grew up, as kids, that if Mr. Fratalone needed help haying, we did it. We didn’t ask for money, we just went. You do two, three wagon loads. The big treat was he’d give us a Schaefer beer. You knew everybody in town. And then one night, they were having a community meeting, asking, ‘What’s the boundaries of the North Egremont village?’

And they wanted me to speak. And I got up and I says, ‘Do you even know who your neighbor is? Have you ever invited him over for a cup of coffee?’ You know, everybody just goes to their house and they don’t know who the hell lives on either side. That’s—that’s something I miss.

So yeah, there was a lot of sentimental value. But one day I came home and told Gail the negatives are outweighing the positives. It’s time to go. Because I really don’t want to die in here.

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