Queen of cakes reigns for 45 years and counting
Since 1975, Linda Ashley, a long-time Lancaster resident whose house sits right at the Lancaster City Limits and the divide of where the City of Red Oak begins, has made a notorious life for herself as “The Cake Lady”.
A baking icon and well-known wedding cake specialist, Linda, now 77, is semi-retired. However, she continues to do what she does best – baking cakes and making people happy.
Building a bakery business together
One of her church friends from the early 70s, Judy Houtchens, asked Linda if she wanted to take a couple of cake decorating classes that she was heading up at the old Civic Center on Centre Street in Lancaster. Judy had already been successful in selling cakes out of her home. But now, she was offering cake decorating classes, so Linda thought she would give it a try. After all, she had three children at home to raise, so if nothing else, it would help her learn how to make birthday cakes and save herself some money in the process.
Now, some 45 plus years later, she’s still at it — what started out as a part-time hobby has ended up becoming her life’s interesting career path.
Linda graduated from Wilmer-Hutchins High School in 1962, and she had always wanted to be a Home Economics teacher as her chosen vocation. However, she became a bride and then a mother at an early age, so life simply got in the way of her
original plans. Then, she became quite famous for her baking and decorating talents instead.
Linda says, “My friend Judy Houtchens is one of the smartest and most talented people I know. Judy is just one of those ladies that is good at everything she attempts – and she was a true ‘artist’ when it came to creating cake masterpieces.”
After a few months after Linda completed a couple of Judy’s cake classes in 1974, Judy decided to open her own bakery on the Town Square in Lancaster, and she asked if Linda would join her as her assistant decorator. “After all”, says Judy, “Linda was my star student. I promised her that I would teach her everything she needed to know about baking cakes, and I assured her that we could build my business together.”
Linda explains, “Back in the mid-70s, there were no bakeries in any of the suburban towns. About the closest one was a big operation in Oak Cliff in the large Wynnewood Shopping Center. There were no bakeries inside of grocery stores during those days either, so one would have to travel some distance to get homemade dessert offerings like customized cakes, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, brownies, tarts, etc."
So, in 1975, the original “cake ladies” – Judy and Linda – became the official cake decorators for the Lovin’ Oven bakery on Lancaster’s Town Square, and they had several ladies who worked in the kitchen doing the baking.
About a year into the business, the popularity was catching on like wildfire. They had so many orders that they worked all day and sometimes even into the nights, which started to take a toll on both the Ashley and Houtchens families’ lives.
After almost five years of success, Judy decided to sell the bakery to other local people, the Coffee family. They continued the Lovin’ Oven legacy for a few years, until Mr. Coffee passed away. From there, they sold the bakery to Suzanne Maxwell, who is still the current owner and still manages her store in the very same location on Lancaster’s Town Square.
Upon the original closing of the store, Linda told Judy “I came into this business with you, so I’m going out with you, too!”
Baking on her own and branching out
So, Judy went back to a normal family life, and Linda continued to just putter around with baking cakes on the side. In 1982, she took a job at a Dallas Tom Thumb store as a cake decorator. She liked the work for several months, but didn't like leaving her kids by themselves. One day on the job, one of her kids called her and told her that a nearby bank had been robbed and the police were looking for the man in the vicinity of their neighborhood. Well, that’s all it took. She quit immediately, and started to take orders for cakes so she could stay at home with her children and still make a good salary to help her family out financially.
About this time in her life, some good friends – Gladys Martin and Millie Sue England of
England’s Florist Shop in DeSoto – asked her if she owned a good supply of cake pans. Millie Sue challenged Linda by telling her, “If you go buy some cake pans of your own, I’ll make sure that I keep you busy baking wedding cakes by sending you all my wedding cake business to you when I get floral wedding bookings” – and she made good on that promise. Her kind gesture helped Linda truly build her growing “Linda Ashley Cakes” clientele.
Her home baking business grew so much that she needed a bigger place to work. In 1983, a friend named Doc Horn (former owner of Lancaster’s country and western dance hall – “Crystal Chandelier”) designed Linda’s bakery building to be constructed toward the back of her property, behind her residence. David Horn, the son, actually did the building of the structure – and finally Linda had a much bigger kitchen devoted totally to her bakery business.
Her husband of 55 years, Hugh Mac Ashley, had been known in Lancaster for many years for running the local J’s Auto Parts store in the northern part of the town. However, in 1994, after he suffered a heart attack, he felt like he needed let his business go. Since Linda was needing a place to expand, she thought of renting Hugh Mac’s old building. Not only was she selling cakes as fast as she could, she was offering other things like wedding receptions, invitations, food catering, and even floral arrangements and themes, as well as other wedding accessories like archways, standing candelabras, table place settings, etc. After some months of renovation, she had completely transformed the auto parts building into a lovely wedding venue.
It was during the 90s that her popularity really grew. She started offering many flavors of her wedding cakes – chocolate, classic white, lemon, spice, Italian cream, amaretto, and carrot. Cookies were never her favorite to bake, but she was also known for her delicious pies – like chocolate and coconut cream, which were two of her grandmother’s (Stella Hancock) recipes that had been handed down over the years.
Interesting baking stories to tell
Linda shares, “One weekend I overbooked myself and committed to doing 16 wedding cakes over a two-day span. It was ridiculous, and I promised myself that I’d never do that again!”
She vividly remembers that from time to time, she bought order pads that had 3,000 forms on each pad. Linda remarks, “That will give you an inkling of how many cakes I might have made over the 45+ years. It is staggering to even guess how many I’ve made!”
Another year she recalls that she baked and decorated more than 200 wedding cakes, beating her own old record.
She also has made special cakes for celebrities like country music stars George Strait, the late Tony Douglas, and Janie Fricke, singer/songwriter Alicia Keyes, Hispanic music star – Selena Quintinilla, Kraig Parker (Elvis impersonator) and Dallas realtor icon – the late Ebby Halliday.
Judy relays, “In the late 70s, Linda and I had been charged with the task of making a large cake in the shape of the United States. I had the primary cut-out shape of the country laid out, but I had set aside a couple of extra pieces of cake that would hang down to become the State of Florida and the southern most part of the State of Texas. Well, low and behold, Linda came along and decided to take a work break. She sat down and grabbed a piece of the discarded cake and began to eat. All of a sudden, I yelled out, 'Stop, Linda! You are eating the State of Florida!'" They both got a good laugh over that boo-boo.
One of Linda’s biggest wedding nightmares occurred in the '80s, when she and her sister Rose Anne (Hancock) Preston were delivering by van a huge, multi-tiered cake to Bison Ranch in Forreston, just south of Waxahachie. They took extreme caution when they had to go over the cattle guard to get to the wedding venue out in the country. But, the vibration of going over the metal bars jarred the cake, and it toppled over in the van, with the entire cake collapsing. Linda says, “Cake delivery tip No. 1: Never take a wedding cake over cattle guards!” She said, laughing, adding they had to head back home and start all over.
And one of the craziest cakes she ever made was for a man that wasn’t that fond of cakes, but he really did love his beer. So, when he cut his big birthday cake in front of his guests, in the middle of the cake tiers was the real surprise – a six-pack of his favorite beer!
The family’s labor of love
When Linda finally realized that she needed more help, she hired a few ladies to help her with the baking. Her daughters – Robin (Lowrance) Richie and Bambi (Ashley) Smith – began to become major players in delivering all these wedding cakes their mother made. At times, her entire family had to be involved in baking, decorating, helping set up weddings, delivering cakes, etc.
Linda shares, “I would have never been a success in this business without the loving help of my family. It has always been a team effort, and I appreciate so much their assistance over the years.” She admits, the hardest part with wedding cakes is the scheduling, "the logistics of getting everything in the right place at the right time. That’s where my family has always come in. They have had to jump in and help ‘save the day’ many times!"
She reminisces, “It has been an honor to be a part of family weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I have been so blessed to be a part of people’s happiest of times. And meeting them and then developing relationships over the years has been a special privilege to me. In fact, I’m currently working on a ‘generational’ cake order. That means I did the cakes for my customer years ago, and now I’m working on the cakes for her son’s wedding. And in the meantime, the love goes on and on.”