An American Roadhouse

Deb Abraham Spalding

Some names have been changed to protect the innocent!

Cactus Flats has a reputation, and it is legendary! Rumor has it, the white house with the cute green cactus out front, located along Route #806 (Hansonville Road), south of Thurmont, started as a roadhouse and is now a unique community gathering place.

Make no doubt about it, history is here. If the walls could talk, you’d hear stories of skunks and critters, visitors and locals, the famous babies, a horse in the dining room, famous visitors, secrets and legends, and news. But the walls don’t talk, so we’ll take the memories shared from the business’s regulars who are family and love this place.

This past winter, a friend invited me “in” to his “place” [Cactus Flats] to meet his “people.” Oh my! My prior impression gleaned during a peanut-hulls-on-the-floor 1990s visit at the Cactus Flats “saloon” were shot to bits as I entered the family-friendly bar/restaurant—not a peanut in sight—and was welcomed with open arms into the Cactus Flats family of regulars (or irregulars—as in most families).

These wonderful people aren’t soggy drunks stopping in at a local watering hole. They’re members of a community (some drink alcohol and some don’t) who choose to gather at Cactus Flats like family.

“We’re here all the time. It’s kind of like our dinner table where the family comes together to share their day,” said regulars, JP and Ann.

“It is family,” added Regular Steve. “Just the other day, Harvey loaned a microwave to Brenda. Last year, JP and JG fixed Brenda’s bridge when a tree fell on it. A few weeks ago, we all went on a fishing trip. You meet your best friends here!”

Regular JG said, “We look forward to Thursdays at 3:00 when they open.” Regular Julie added, “We all look forward to it because we miss our friends.”

 One day, Regular Julie pointed out some out-of-town regulars who showed up. “We adopt people. When they’re in town, they’re one of the family.” Chris from Boston and Mike from Jersey were joined by Tex from Texas who grinned as he said, “I’m a newbie.” 

Owner, Donna Palmer, her dedicated right-hand co-worker Molly Hayes, and the rest of the “Cactus Catz” staff are gracious hostesses who calmly, happily, and affectionately prepare the place for the family to gather. They cook the meals and even serve them while joking and bantering along the way.

If you’ve never been to Cactus Flats, or it’s been a while, stop in!

Take a peek at Cactus Flat’s colorful history…

Miss Alice Miller — The Roma Café Legend!

With her hard-earned money, Miss Alice (Grandmother Miller to some) bought land known as the “Maryland Camp” around 1929. On it, she built the small “house” that is at the core of the now – Cactus Flats – and three cabins. According to the Maryland State Department of Health, she was officially operating a “Tourist Camp.” She named her business the Roma Café and was firmly established by 1932. Being a legend and all (wink), she was said to have been asked to move her business location out of Frederick.

Just imagine. In her time, the Route #15 highway wasn’t there, so Route #806 went right by the house. There were gas pumps out front and a chicken house with a cellar (isn’t that unique) out back.

In the original house, when you entered the front door (that is still visible and currently has steps leading to it but isn’t used regularly) there were three rooms on the right and a small bar on the left and a set of steps straight ahead that led upstairs. A bathroom for the ladies was straight back and the men had to use an outhouse out back next to the chicken house. The now-enclosed porch was open then. There was a pot-belly stove inside on the back wall.

Upstairs there were four bedrooms and an attic with a chimney sticking out of the roof above. The bedrooms and cabins outside were rented by the hour or night by local dandies and the ladies.

Legend suggests that Miss Alice hid money all over the place and then forgot about it. “That old lady was worth millions of dollars,” Regular ST shared tidbits that he had heard. “Back in the day she didn’t need money, but she knew where the money was. Nobody else did. She had money hidden everywhere and never dropped a penny.”

When Miss Alice was older and couldn’t go up the steps anymore, she lived right there in the room near the bar. She was almost 100 years old when she died.

Miss Alice is said to have been a very stern woman, but ST has been visiting the roadhouse since the 1970s when he rode over on his bicycle. He has lots of love for, and memories of, Miss Alice. “Miss Alice would tell everybody, ‘Get your beer. You know where it’s at!’” It’s even said that when Miss Alice was asleep in her recliner, customers would put their money for a beer in a cigar box. It was a self-serve honor system.

Regular Todd also rode his bicycle to the roadhouse as a youngster to collect cans for recycling. He and Regular Harvey described the old Model A Ford that sat outside with trees growing through it. It was a landmark.

Some locals recall buying a six-pack, going to their local gathering spot then returning to Miss Alice for more beer. One day, upon return, Miss Alice said, “I don’t sell that!” Confused, the locals claimed she had just sold them a six-pack earlier, she said, “Well, I don’t anymore!”

Grandsons Inherit The Roma Café

Miss Alice operated the Roma Café until 1981. When she passed away, she left the business to her two grandsons Glenn and Dave Rippeon (they are both deceased now).

Dave Rippeon and his wife ran things starting in 1981 for just about two years and attempted to sell the business to a guy named Danny.

Danny’s Eatin’ and Drinkin’ Place

Danny Wyatt took over running the business for a very brief time with the intent to purchase it. It didn’t work out. Danny changed its name to Danny’s Eatin’ and Drinkin’ Place. According to Wayne Wiles, Danny didn’t serve food. He had vending machines and drink coolers for customers to get their own food and drink. When Danny moved on, the Rippeons transferred the business to Wayne Wiles in 1983.

Wayne Wiles – The Country Western Movie Star!

Wayne Wiles was born on a farm near Cactus Flats. He pointed forward to the west as he said, “I was born over there about three miles,” and then he pointed back over his shoulder to the East, “and now I live over there about three miles.” Between those two points of time, Wayne’s done a lot of living.

He is one of seven Wiles brothers who “each had a sister, one sister,” he said with an arm jab (you get it don’t you). Wayne said he told his mother, “Thank you for having me,” when he was born in 1941. He was his brother Bob’s one-year birthday present. They were both born on May 9.

Wayne “ran away” from the family farm when he was 21 years old so he could “see the world and get paid to work.” Hollywood was calling his name!

He went to California and called Roy Rogers Enterprises. That was fruitless, so he went to Phoenix where, ironically (working on a farm again), he worked the “tater” fields to make money to live. He pitched cantaloupe then pitched watermelon. He still made his calls to be in the movies.

Wayne was good at riding horses and was eventually hired as an extra in several movies including Claude Akin’s Distant Trumpet with Troy Donohue, Arizona Raiders, Hallelujah Trail, and The Great Sioux Massacre. He said, “You know how that turned out [The Great Sioux Massacre]. Audi Murphy was in it. In the original movie, you can pick me out sitting on a wagon. In the remakes, you’ll see me walking around, my hair hanging.”

Around 1966, Westerns were going out of favor, so Wayne returned to Maryland. He farmed for five years and felt he was drinking so much that he needed to get his liquor wholesale. So, in 1983, he figured he’d “get paid to drink” and bought the Roma Café from the Rippeon grandsons who had inherited the place from its first owner, THE legendary “Miss Alice Miller.”

Wayne gave the business a new name, Cactus Flats! He chose the name from his movie days when he was riding horses on the set. He was told to ride up the cactus hill. Wayne said, “It’s flat here so I named it Cactus Flats.” He installed the big cactus that sits out front.

Wayne added an additional dining room (that started as a storage room for 1,000 cases of Budweiser he had purchased on sale through the distributor) and a big horseshoe-shaped bar. Wayne also “put the [notorious] peanuts on the floor.”

Interestingly, over the course of owning the business, Wayne stopped drinking alcohol in 1998. He was 100% sober when he sold the business to Kenny Clevenger in 2000.

Although Cactus had seen its share of some real-life brawls, like Wayne, the business’s remarkable past was changing. With a big chuckle, Wayne assured me that he, “can’t share the highlights of his ownership for public consumption.”

Kenny Clevenger purchased it from Wayne in 2000.

Wayne sold the business in 2000 to Kenny Clevenger. During his five years of ownership, Clevenger hired Todd Adkins and Larry Workman to build the bar that is now in place. It replaced Wayne’s horseshoe bar. Kenny also closed in the porch and hired Jay Callahan to do some artwork on the bar. Though much of the art has rubbed away, there are still some cactuses and stars visible.

Donna Palmer – The Cactus Community’s Hostess!

Donna Palmer purchased Cactus Flats from Kenny Clevenger in 2005. She added a new roof and new paint. She took the peanuts away when a situation arose that made the choice inevitable. Donna kept changes to a minimum to respect the legacy, “It’s getting harder to find this kind of place anywhere. Why would I change it?”

It’s obvious that Donna is in business for her family of customers. Donna and the Cactus Catz are the hosts who provide quiet and comfortable support through life in this place. “A lot of people say they feel comfortable because we’re so friendly,” Donna said. “The community just keeps coming back.”

Molly Hayes has worked with Donna for fourteen years. In addition to helping in every way, Molly enjoys decorating for parties and works to prepare a grand Halloween (her favorite) shindig every year. One year, one of the famous babies (a Halloween decoration) was kidnapped! While this caused a commotion, the baby was quietly returned soon after.

These days, Cactus Flat’s colorful history is still fresh in the regulars’ minds as time has expanded to new generations. As they tell their stories, they point out where things used to be by making hand gestures “over there” where Miss Alice’s bed was, and there where the pot belly stove was, and there on the back porch where so-in-so was pushed out the door.

Like Regular Harvey said, “There are always tales about a place like this. The legend changes and grows.”

Through the hands and dedication of Dave Rippeon and his wife, Wayne Wiles, Kenny Clevenger, and now Donna Palmer, Miss Alice’s legacy has transformed subtly, over time. “It may not have stayed the same name, but the legendary business that Miss Alice started has continued for almost 100 years now,” Donna explained. “I wish I would have had the chance to meet her because she was a true entrepreneur before her time.” Today, “It’s like it gives you a hug. We all just want to be accepted.”

Stop by Soon!

Stop by soon to have dinner with your family or make some forever new friends and become part of the Cactus family! Cactus Flats is located at 10026 Hansonville Road, on the right as you travel Route #15 South from Thurmont/Lewistown/Mountaindale to Frederick. It is open Thursdays and Fridays 3:00 to 10:00 p.m., Saturdays 12:00 to 10:00 p.m., and Sundays 12:00 to 8:00 p.m. Like them on Facebook to be informed about live entertainment and updates.

Current owner, Donna Palmer (in background), with former owner, Wayne Wiles, who is wearing one of many logo shirts.

The legendary Miss Alice is shown seated in front of the pot belly stove with one of her brothers in the Roma Café.

Photos by Deb Abraham Spalding unless otherwise indicated

Former owner Wayne Wiles shares his western movie photos.

(right) The original Roma Café consisted of the house, three cabins, a chicken house, a barn, a shed, and garden.

The famous Model A Ford was a landmark for many years, as the trees grew around it.

Some of the “Cactus Catz” staff members are pictured.

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