The blend of dim lights and neon signs cast soft shadows across the faces of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean inside the ‘50s Roadhouse in Knights Ferry, but with the beaming smile of Martha Jane Harding lighting up the room, bulbs are pretty much useless.
The Oakdale resident and Riverbank native is about as bubbly as the nearby Stanislaus River, illuminating the Roadhouse with friendly service for her fifth year behind the bar.
“The type of people here makes it easy to do this type of work,” Harding said with a smile. “You meet a lot of neat people, and the people in the five mile radius around here are some of the best you could ever meet.”
The 36-year-old graduate of Oakdale High landed her position behind the bar after meeting the original owner of the ‘50s Roadhouse while working cattle on nearby property in Knights Ferry. When the conversation turned to an employment opportunity, Harding decided to give the occupation a chance.
“I knew nothing about bartending at first, and I don’t drink,” Harding laughed. “But I thought, what the heck a job there might be nice, and now I can definitely say that I enjoy it.”
Harding also works at the Farmers Livestock auction house on Albers Road, where her expertise with animals plays a role in the tagging and penning of cattle. She still finds time to work several days a week at the Roadhouse, serving up drinks and smiles with a charismatic persona behind the bar.
Her attitude has made quite the impression on co-owners Manuel Arias Sr. and Manuel Arias Jr. (Manny), who purchased the bar when the previous owner decided to sell the company to their longtime employee, Arias Sr.
“Martha is very good and reliable,” Manny said. “If I need something done she is there, and she has never taken a sick day.”
In the rare moments when Harding isn’t working, she cares for her assortment of horses, sheep and other animals at her Oakdale home. She’s a hunting enthusiast who enjoys spending time with her brother and sister-in-law, George and Brandy Harding (also of Oakdale). Her favorite movie is the legendary Australian tale, The Man From Snowy River, which is no shock considering her love of horses.
Her passion for the outdoors is a perfect match for the ‘50s Roadhouse, which nestles just outside of Knights Ferry off Highway 108 on Kennedy Road. It’s a hotspot for characters of all creeds.
“We get every type of person here,” Harding said. “We have had people here from Spain, Germany, China and Japan and of course we get the local veterans and cowboys.
“Everyone in here makes it a fun different mix of people.”
And she is certainly a welcoming face to most of the regular patrons, including self-described ‘best customer’ Terry Whitaker, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran from Knights Ferry who frequents the Roadhouse.
“I’ve known Martha for what feels close to 20 years,” Whitaker said from his spot at the end of the bar. “She’s always been great and she’s one of those people that you first meet and like them right off the bat.
The Roadhouse is a popular gathering ground for veterans of a different sort when the area hosts its annual Civil War reenactment at the nearby Knights Ferry Recreation Area.
“They come in here and it is packed, with both sides drinking together,” Harding said.
“My first question is usually did you die today?” she added with a laugh, noting the reenactments always include ‘casualties’ from both the North and South.
Harding and the ‘50s Roadhouse expects to see plenty of traffic in the coming weeks with the implementation of several promotions. The bar offers live music from bands and DJs on every Friday in August and will soon kick off football promotions that include NFL Sunday Ticket and $2 schooners (big frozen mugs shaped like a ‘Flavor Flav’ goblet) during Monday Night Football.
“I think this is a great place if you want to come have a beer in the middle of nowhere,” Manny said. “If you want to get away from the city and hang out with your lady, this is a good spot.”