Innkeeper turns a family business into a way of life
Steve Walker ’81 had fond memories of spending childhood summers at his grandmother’s inn nestled in the Catskill Mountains, catching butterflies, swimming in the pond out back with the frogs and snakes, and hanging around the repeat guests, who were more like family than customers.
In college, Walker considered taking over Kelly Acres, named after his feisty grandmother Lula Kelly, after graduation, but he didn’t consider the enterprise financially viable. His grandmother had to close during the winters for lack of business and instead work at resorts in Florida to earn extra money. So Walker decided he would become a tax lawyer. That way he could make enough money to buy what he really wanted: a Jaguar and a big house with a garage to park it in.
Fortunately for him, two events during his sophomore year—one timely and the other tragic—changed everything. Those circumstances sent Walker down a far different road, one away from a life of materialism and a job he would have disliked, and toward a calling that he loves, one that had been there all along.
“Timing,” Walker agrees matter-of-factly, “is everything.”
This story, which also includes a woman named Nancy, a dog named Einstein, a bunch of helpful hunters and a ski slope, begins in 1979, Walker’s sophomore year. That was when his grandfather, who helped Lula run Kelly Acres, died of a heart attack. It was also when the private ski slope, located seven miles from the family inn, was sold and opened to the public.
Walker spent the next few summer breaks helping his grandmother run Kelly Acres, located in Windham, N.Y., which is roughly 60 miles south of Albany. In the winter, while he was back at college, a flood of skiers began driving to the area, and many wanted a place to stay overnight.
Seeing a stream of potential winter revenue on the horizon, Walker decided to dump his future career as a tax attorney and move up to Windham for good. He and his grandmother spent the ensuing months winterizing the nearly 200-year-old former farmhouse, including its eight guest rooms. It was a big job and Walker did most of the work himself—with advice and help from his guests—or friends, as he calls many of them.
“I have chefs that come here, hunters, mechanics and lawyers,” he says, many of whom are well versed in home maintenance and renovation. They’d swap their knowledge for his expertise on gardening. “We sit around the fireplace and just start talking. I ask, ‘How do you do this?’ and vice versa. A lot of these guys want to know how to grow their peppers and what went wrong.”
Walker wears his red beard long and wild. His unkempt hair curls out from beneath a black NRA cap. His sweatshirt is partially unzipped, his jeans are ripped and his hiking boots are muddy and well worn. He’s a self-taught naturalist who can hit a target up to 35 yards away with a compound bow. He cuts his own firewood, and Christmas tree, too. And he fixes just about everything himself.
Nancy Walker says she couldn’t imagine her husband sitting behind a desk in an expensive suit and dealing with the minutia of tax law every day. “He could have done it, but it doesn’t tap into his creativity,” she says.
She describes her husband as fair, compassionate and a good listener. He is well liked around town, she says. “He’s surprising at times because there’s a lot of depth to him. He’s interested in a lot of things that don’t relate to each other—from Civil War history to politics to horticulture.”
It’s something people meeting him for the first time may not expect, given that he doesn’t exactly fit the image of an intellectual. Or a politician. Last year, Walker cut more than half a foot off his beard to look more presentable and ran for town council.
He won the post and changed hats from his previous position on Windham’s planning commission. Walker spent 11 years, including eight as chairman, helping to handle the town’s significant development pressures and the building of a $23 million water and sewage plant.
“I didn’t come up here with any political inhibitions, just to run the resort,” Walker says.
He pins the blame on a neighboring landowner, who wanted to run utility lines through Walker’s property to reach his own land. Walker fought the proposal, which would have affected some of his trees and a narrow road, and won.