Living the old way in Shelter Island
SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. – While Solomon takes an order for a BLT with one hand and downshifts a cherry Coke at the soda fountain with the other, Bennett is multitasking at the grill with the calm assurance of a man who’s been doing this for 20 years. Sizzling in various stages of completion are an egg-white omelet, a hamburger, a grilled cheese, hash browns, and onions.
He sprinkles the omelet with mushrooms and tomatoes, puts a slice of cheese on a burger and covers it with a small lid, puts the grilled cheese on the plates and hands it to Solomon, who has served the Coke and is slicing a roast beef sandwich that looks big enough to gag a shark.
Noontime at the lunch counter of the Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy is always busy. Among the locals, there’s a rising tide of repartee, and conversations are leapfrogging from stool to stool. The voices rub cheerfully against one another. As Solomon places the BLT before the woman sitting next to me, she turns and says, “I’ve been gone for five years. This is my first day back. This is home. There’s no place like Shelter Island.”
Indeed, Shelter Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, is 15 minutes and 100 years from the Hamptons, that glitzy, glittery, fabled playground of the rich and famous. Even today, it might have posed for Norman Rockwell. There are coves, creeks, marshes, inlets, and harbors prickling with masts. Two-lane roads wind through fields that have nourished crops and livestock for four centuries. Roadside stands sell vegetables and flowers on the honor system. Pumpkins lounge in the fields like fallen moons.
Hospitality is woven into life’s fabric here. The 2,300 year-round residents treat one another as though they will meet again, and they greet strangers with comforting rhetorical questions, like “How are you?” Many of the residents can trace their roots to the 1650s, when the island was settled by Europeans.
Shelter Island is only a four-hour drive from Philadelphia, but be warned: There are no shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, billboards, or hot nightclubs.
And, making it all possible, there is no bridge. Several times in the last 100 years, there have been efforts to build a bridge, but each attempt was quashed by local opposition. As a result, ferries chug back and forth from North Haven in the south and Greenport in the north. The trip takes about five minutes, but this minor inconvenience is just enough to set the island apart.
A few steps from the pharmacy is the Chequit (chee-kwit), which opened in 1872. There were no televisions in the rooms back then, and there still aren’t. “We don’t have televisions in the rooms because the Chequit is a place for conversation, reading, and good food,” explains David Bowd, chief executive of Salt Hotels, which renovated the property this year.
Actress Mary Pickford stayed there in the 1920s, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were guests in the 1950s, and Ethel and Robert Kennedy sailed into the harbor and spent a night in the 1960s. Though the revamped Chequit is now a 37-room boutique hotel with modern baths, it has lost none of its Victorian, seaside charm.
Red Maple, the hotel’s restaurant (named for a tree in its outdoor terrace), serves a farm-to-table menu weighted heavily toward seafood.
After filling up at Piccozzi’s Gas Station (“America’s Oldest Mobil Station – 1927”), I head for the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church Burial Ground. Many of the grave markers have been canted and jockeyed by the frosts of some 200 winters. They bear first names like Caleb and Hannah, and several of the men fought in the Revolutionary War.
As the church bell announces 11 a.m., a car pulls up, a woman steps out and introduces herself as Joy Bowditch Bausman. I note that these last two names appear on many of the stones. She tells me she’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which is working to restore and preserve the monuments. She talks at 100 words per minute, with gusts up to 150.
She shows me a 1752 stone that has broken into a dozen pieces and that has been reassembled, like a jigsaw puzzle, and placed horizontally under Plexiglas on a stone tabletop supported by four pillars.
She tells me she’s a lifelong Shelter Island resident and asks me whether I know what a hare-legger is. Without waiting for me, she supplies the answer. “Shelter Islanders are known for the ability to run quickly to catch the ferry.”
She suggests I visit Sylvester Manor. “It was home to 11 generations of the Sylvesters, the original European settler family dating back to 1652. I’m a direct descendant.”
Sylvester Manor is closed for the season, but a young man named Zachary Johnson, who runs educational programs for kids there, offers to give me an impromptu tour. He points to a huge, gnarled tree that looks like a fairy tale troll. “That’s a copper beech that was planted in the mid-1800s.” Overhead, Europe-bound jets chalk up the deep-blue sky.
“Shelter Island was settled by Nathaniel Sylvester, an English sugar merchant, in 1652,” Johnson says as though he has said this before. “Sylvester became the island’s sole owner 22 years later. Gradually, he sold acreage to other families, and the current farm is about 243 acres. It’s now operated as a nonprofit organic farm and educational center.”
The farm was used to provision the Sylvesters’ sugar plantations on Barbados, and, at one point, there were 23 slaves here. Johnson points to a narrow, twisting stairway leading to the attic. “Unlike in the South, the slaves here lived in the same house as the masters. But,” he adds, “the attic was hot and crowded.”
The manor house is filled with centuries of family heirlooms – a piano with candles to read the sheet music, a quill pen and inkwell, dark portraits of brooding men and women.
Nearly a third of Shelter Island, more than 2,000 acres, is occupied by the Mashomack Preserve, which is run by the private Nature Conservancy and is a blend of interlaced tidal creeks, freshwater marshes, mature forests, meadows, and 12 miles of coastline.
I begin at the visitor center, where Rebecca Kusa, a conservation education specialist, answers my first question. “Oh, the nests. They’re osprey nests. They’re made of sticks, driftwood, and seaweed. They build them in tree forks and on utility poles. Many of them get reused year after year.”
Other Mashomack denizens include harbor seals, fiddler crabs, terrapins, wood ducks, deer, turtles, raccoons, salamanders, and some 200 bird species.
There are five trails, ranging from one to 10 miles, but even if you don’t want to hike, the visitor center itself is worth a visit. Dozens of interactive exhibits describe the preserve’s wildlife, and an outside bird feeder can be viewed with binoculars through a window, and a microphone enables you to hear as well as see the birds.
Meandering along back roads, I come across the Ram’s Head Inn, a rambling, Colonial-style building, and decide to get a drink. The door is open and I walk in to find a man sitting at the reception desk. I ask him if I can get a beer. “We’re closed for the season,” he says. “But if you wait five minutes until I finish this paperwork, I’ll open the bar for you.”