In 1979, six weeks after buying the Ram’s Head Inn, James and Linda Eklund opened for the season, welcoming a wave of guests eager to see what the new owners had done with the place.
The dining room was spruced up. Elegant Bentwood chairs with cane seats, hand-me-downs from the Pridwin, had been freshly re-caned.
“Guests started to fall through them,” Linda Eklund remembered. “When the first chair went, I was horrified. On the second, I started to wonder.”
By the sixth or seventh chair, everyone in the dining room applauded as yet another diner held up a busted chair. “We just kept giving them new chairs,” James Eklund said. “The pile of chairs behind the front desk was pretty high.”
From the very beginning, making the Ram’s Head Inn work wasn’t easy. When Joan Covey built it in 1929, she chose a site on a remote island that was only accessible by driving across another island, and the one road to the Inn was sometimes claimed by the sea. By the time she opened the doors for guests, the U.S. economy was in shambles. But her bet paid off, and by the time the Bennett family bought the Inn in the 1940s, the Ram’s Head had a permanent place in the life of Shelter Island and a firm-enough financial footing to keep operating as an Inn.
Linda Eklund first visited the Ram’s Head with her grandparents in the 1960s, and later rented one of the third-floor rooms for five dollars a week while working summers at the country club. James’ family had a long history on Shelter Island as well. She and James met in their Silver Beach neighborhood, married in 1975, and opened a wine and cheese shop in the Heights. In 1979, (before Facebook and email) Linda heard the Ram’s Head might be on the market, and immediately wrote to John Bennett, who wrote right back. A week later, they had a deal. With no prior hotel experience, Linda and James Eklund purchased a 50-year-old inn with 17 rooms on 4.37 acres six weeks before the start of the season.
The building was beginning to need some work, and although James wouldn’t start his construction company until 1984, he knew what to do. They called in their families. “The kitchen was a disaster,” James recalled. “My father, who started cleaning in there, found a tray of baked potatoes still in the oven.”
The Eklund’s give some of the credit for their successful relaunch of the Inn to their outstanding chefs, especially Ray Bradley, who came in 1981 and then returned in 1985.
The food Chef Bradley created at the Ram’s Head was spectacular by all accounts. He developed a number of “Harvest Menus” that relied on local ingredients and listed the sources at a time when most diners never gave a thought to where their scallops came from. The Ram’s Head began to develop a reputation for fine dining that extended beyond Long Island.
The word gets out
Linda and James were on a flight from England to Italy in 1985 when James, who was wearing a Ram’s Head Inn sweatshirt, was approached by a passenger who asked if he worked there, and declared it his favorite place. In 1986, when the phone rang at 3 a.m. on a February morning with a person on the other end inquiring about a reservation, Linda found out that New York Magazine had just done a cover story featuring the Inn, and its “impressive kitchen.” Reservations surged again.
In the nine years that John Barton, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of New England, was chef at the Ram’s Head, he proved himself to be an organizational wiz, redesigning the kitchen procedures and layouts, and putting in place systems that are still functioning at the Inn today. Bill Yosses, who later served as pastry chef for the Obamas, worked at the Ram’s Head first. The Inn’s current chef, Joe Smith, started in the kitchen as a teenager working with John Barton. He came back as sous chef, and returned six years ago as head chef.
All in the family
From the beginning, the Eklund’s have made family a part of the Inn. In the first years, they lived on the third floor with the chef and their baby, Jonathan. Later Elizabeth and Andrew came along and over the years began working as waiters and busing tables. Elizabeth answered phones and handed out flowers on Mother’s Day. James’s sister Jenifer Maxson greeted and seated dinner guests, and her daughter Karina worked alongside nieces and nephews from both sides of the family as well as a staff of unrelated but dedicated workers who came back every year, some for decades. All family events, including christenings, weddings and holidays were celebrated at the Inn.
The rest of the Island celebrated their events at the Ram’s Head too. A frequent location for the prom, annual site of the school’s Honor Society luncheon, the Gift of Life benefit, State of the Town luncheon, as well as birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. “The Ram’s Head is part of Shelter Island,” Linda said. “We always wanted it to be responsive to the needs of the community.”
Changing with the times
Over the years the Eklunds brought the old Inn into the modern age. Guest rooms on the second floor featured louvered doors to improve air circulation in the days before air conditioning. Linda said, “They were charming except you could sometimes hear sounds from the rooms in the hallway, and the Health Department made us seal them since they were in violation of the Fire Code.”
Once, before the doors were sealed, Linda heard a guest’s dog barking from one of the upstairs rooms, accompanied by what sounded like yelling. “I ran up the stairs, but as soon as I heard the ‘yelling’ was rhythmic, I ran back down.”
It turned out that the lusty couple had been enjoying each other’s company so enthusiastically, that their dog started barking and alerted the whole Inn.
Like all old houses, the Inn needed consistent and continual repair and renovation over the years. “Water has been our nemesis,” James said. One year after they had replaced the plumbing on the third floor, they were getting ready for a 150-person wedding, when water began pouring from the ceiling on the main floor from a leak in the newly-installed third floor plumbing. Then the ceiling fell in.
On another occasion, a large wedding took place as the weather got worse and worse. The causeway flooded, and when the wedding was over, no one could leave. The Inn didn’t have enough rooms for most of the drunken party, who also needed to be fed and entertained. The staff struggled to keep order. At one-point James found a group of unattended kids drawing on the furniture with magic markers.
History made at the Ram’s Head
In 1947, 25 of the best minds in physics met at the Ram’s Head over three days in June, in an historic conference attended by Linus Pauling, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman, among others. According the American Physics Society, discussions at the conference provided vital stimulus to the field of quantum mechanics theory. A second conference held in 1983 at the Ram’s Head brought physics luminaries together again, this time including Steven Hawking.
Ray Williamson, science teacher at the Shelter Island School brought the physics students to the Inn meet the scientists. Linda asked the spouses of some of the participants if they usually came along for conferences. “They said they had to,” she said. “These scientists think on such a level that operating a toaster oven is difficult for them.”
Passing the torch
Last year, as the pandemic worsened, the Eklunds prepared themselves for a terrible season, but as it turned out, they were one of the few places on Shelter Island that didn’t have to shut down.
“Last summer we went from thinking this was the worst thing that could happen to us to the best thing,” Linda said.
The Adirondack chairs on the lawn became an enormous dining room, where people took takeout food and drinks from the Inn. “We had the whole family here, including our son from Brooklyn,” she said. “All of our kids, all of our grandkids.”
The couple said they didn’t know it would end this way. After several attempts to sell over the past 20 years, this winter, James and Linda were approached by a buyer, Aandrea Carter, who wanted to run the Ram’s Head as an inn.
“This buyer had lots of great ideas and the wherewithal to make them happen,” James said. “And we want to spend time with our grandkids at the Rams Head without the responsibility for what’s going on there.”
They both feel good about Ms. Carter, and about passing the torch. “We’ve been very lucky,” said James. “There have been ups and downs but the only things I remember are the good things.”