A place untouched by time Little Orleans shop cashes in on tradition

November 28, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

LITTLE ORLEANS -- Bill's Place has the look a Hollywood studio might spend thousands of dollars to achieve for a movie. It's the kind of place curators at the Smithsonian might spend months trying to create for an Americana exhibit.

For William J. Schoenadel, who bought the store in 1969, the look was easy. "We just tried to keep from making changes," he said.

Sometimes genius is knowing enough not to mess with a good thing.

This creaky combination of general store, bar, restaurant, sporting goods outlet, pool room and just-about-everything-else off the C&O Canal in the southern Allegany County village of Little Orleans is an oasis with an international reputation known to hikers, bikers, hunters and others who happen to pass through.

"If you drive up for the day and want to stay for a week, we can accommodate you," said Mr. Schoenadel, 68.

He bought the store in 1969 from a widow who had closed it after her husband died earlier that year. The store, in one form or another, had operated in Little Orleans since 1832. "I grew up in a country store in LaVale, and when this came along, I thought I would try it," Mr. Schoenadel said.

Few concessions to modern times have been made. A video arcade is one of those allowances, as its appeal draws campers and others when the weather forces them indoors. "I try to keep from making changes," Mr. Schoenadel said. "People come here to see it that way, the way things were.

"I've got people that came here 20 years ago as kids now coming back with their kids, and not much has changed since then," he said. "I like to keep the place as old as I can."

Bill's Place is about 10 miles off Interstate 68, at exit 68. It reeks with nostalgia and tradition, such as the more than 4,500 dollar bills attached to the ceiling. The display started many years ago when one customer left a dollar bill on the ceiling "in case he was ever broke and needed a dollar to spend," Mr. Schoenadel said. "Now it's gotten to be some sort of registration for coming here. People sign them and write notes on them."

Mr. Schoenadel puts the bills on boards, covers them with plastic, and puts them up on the ceiling. One board is reserved for the Knights of the Road motorcycle club -- an example of the diversity of Bill's customers.

"I've got dollar bills signed by people from 40 states and 12 countries," he said.

Bill's Place is also decorated with an array of trinkets, signs and other artifacts that have found their resting place. A bumper sticker behind the bar claims, "We don't have a town drunk, we all take turns." Sodas can be purchased in a 1950s era Coca-Cola cooler. Penny candy is for sale, and wooden chairs swing from the rafters of the front porch.

Many of the travelers along the C&O Canal make it a point of getting off and stopping at Bill's for a hot meal and a cold beer. If they haven't been here before, they've probably heard of it, either through word-of-mouth from other outdoors enthusiasts or read about it in numerous articles, from National Geographic to Washingtonian magazine.

Jerry Hartman, 54, can attest to Bill's widespread reputation. A Baltimore native, Mr. Hartman has lived in Little Orleans for about a year, although he's known about Bill's much longer than that. "One time I was at the New Castle Airport in Delaware, and I met this guy who, when he heard I was from Maryland, asked me if I ever heard of Bill's," he said.

"I've heard people refer to this place, calling it the Long Branch, the name of the saloon from the show 'Gunsmoke,' " Mr. Hartman said.

Bill Keller, 61, has a campground nearby. He's been a regular at Bill's Place for many years and often helps out running the store. "We have people that come back year after year," he said. "This place is addictive. One trip and they're hooked, they've got to come back."

Travelers come back not only for the look. The attraction includes the friendly atmosphere Mr. Schoenadel has created. "The reason I am here is for the people," he said.

Mr. Schoenadel has shared the pleasures of Bill's Place with Ethel, his wife of 45 years. He's also reared five children who made the store their second home. He has no plans to do anything else except what he's been for 22 years -- the proprietor of Bill's Place.

"It's my life," he said.

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