Who was ‘Famous Bill?’

  • Bill Robichaud Contributed photo

  • “Famous Bill’s” Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 9/21/2020 10:01:21 AM

Remember those big Famous Bill’s Restaurant signs on the Mohawk Trail between Big Y and the Longview Tower? Back-to-back at the top of a utility pole on the north side of the road, they faced both east and west. They were so big you couldn’t miss them, except when tree branches blocked the view. There was a spotlight that shined on the one for drivers coming down the hill at night. I remember them. Aug. 30 marked five years since they came down.

Oct. 22, 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the Mohawk Trail being designated by the state Legislature as the county’s First Scenic Byway for automobiles, and what was Greenfield doing to mark the occasion except keeping up signs for a restaurant that had closed over five years before? That was it — they were coming down.

Many trips out there, day and night, made it happen, including safely securing the power line to the spotlight, which was found cut, exposed and hanging while live. The signs were in good shape but the bottom bolts to the pole had fallen out over time and, eventually, they would’ve come down on their own. If they’d flown into moving vehicles it would’ve been awful. But they were safely stored away, because at 5-by-9 feet each and made out of sheet metal, where were they gonna go?

Who was “Famous Bill” anyway? Nobody I asked around here knew, but the library had annual town directories, archives of the Greenfield Recorder, Recorder-Gazette, and Gazette and Courier newspapers. With additional help from Ancestry.com, I found answers: William Robichaud was born in 1871 in Lenox and raised in Gardner.

At 18 years old, he married Bridgit O’Connor and worked in the Heywood Brothers furniture shop. In 1899, they moved to Leominster. Bill worked for 15 years in the Whitney Carriage shop before selling food from a “lunch wagon.” Two years later, they moved to Greenfield, where the budding restaurateur saw greater possibilities with hungry travelers coming into town on both the river and railroad.

While his three sons became waiters, Bill sold food from a lunch cart before running the Pullman Lunch on Miles Street. After Bridgit and his son George died in 1920, relief came when Bill’s younger brother, Joseph, moved to Greenfield. In 1922, Joseph started running the Federal Lunch, where the People’s United Bank is now, while the youngest son, Leon, and his wife began running Roby’s Lunch in Turners Falls. Bill remarried in 1923 and a year later, William Jr. began running the Mohawk Spa lunchroom on Main Street, so four Robichaud men were running their own eating establishments.

In 1926, Bill’s Coffee House opened where BK Tile and Stone is now, diagonally across from his brother’s place. The next year, he changed it to “Bill’s Restaurant.” In 1932, he took over the Federal Lunch, changing its name to the Minute Man Diner. Joseph was working with him again. In 1937, Leon and Margaret left Turners Falls to work with the rest of the family for Bill on Federal Street.

In 1941, Bill sold the restaurant to Romeo Auclair and George Goulet. Bill and Johanna sold the Minute Man Diner in 1945 and retired in Greenfield, before eventually moving to Florida. Bill Robichaud died in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. in 1960 at the age of 88. He is buried with family in the Cavalry Cemetery in Greenfield.

In 1943, Bill’s Restaurant moved to the corner of Ames Street, where the DeLuxe Café and Burke’s Restaurant had operated for ten years. In 1950, it expanded next door, where Dutch’s Bake Shop had been for decades. And in 1971, it gained more adjacent space, where it opened the banquet room. Bill’s Restaurant remained in that location until finally closing in December of 2008.

Bill Robichaud himself was never “famous,” but the restaurant that bore his name did gain some notoriety after it was featured in the January 1969 edition of Ford Times. Ford Motors published this travel magazine for its customers from 1908 to 1993. Each month, a few restaurants got small write-ups, along with color sketches and recipes published. Bill’s recipe was for his Lobster Pie.

In 1971, Romeo Auclair, his son Bob, and Michael Gexler began to advertise Bill’s Restaurant as “Famous Bill’s, featured Coast to Coast in ‘Ford Times,’” alongside an illustration of a lobster holding a top hat to boot. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Russ Pirkot lives in Greenfield. He enjoys ancestral and local history research.




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