The Innkeepers’ Destiny

Linda and Rick Pukenas are now the innkeepers of the Robert Ruark Inn after following a lifelong dream to run a bed-and-breakfast. Photo by Bethany Turner

Southport Historical Society’s
24th Annual Christmas Tour of Homes
Sat., Dec. 8th
2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
$10/adv. tickets; $15/day of show
Available at Southport Visitor’s Center
(910) 457-7927

Spending a large portion of their 28-year marriage living just outside of Philadelphia, Linda and Rick Pukenas often ventured to the quaint town of Cape May, New Jersey to escape their day-to-day lives. “It’s a Victorian seaside community, and we fell in love with it,” Linda describes. “We always stayed in bed-and-breakfasts there—and then we got hooked and would only stay in bed-and-breakfasts.”

Linda, who worked in financial marketing, and Rick, whose background is in school administration, both possess a deep-rooted love for the antiquated. Together they almost always owned historic homes, including when they moved to Wake Forest, North Carolina in 2007. “We had family there which was wonderful, but we just never felt connected,” Linda shares. “Southport was always like our little Cape May. It’s got the same charm. It’s historical—for us, that’s huge, and [that it’s] coastal is, too, because we’re boaters and we love anything nautical. It’s just such a nice-size, sweet town. You can ride your bikes around; the people are so nice. On the weekends we were always down here. We just wanted to be here.”

Livingroom; photo by Bethany Turner

But the Pukenases, whose warm and welcoming demeanor explains a lot of why they enjoy the close-knit feel of bed-and-breakfasts, weren’t able to settle for the next few years. Their lives were sidetracked when Linda received an opportunity to work abroad. “I got offered a job by a bank out in Puerto Rico to take care of the Caribbean,” she says, “and we lived in St. Thomas. Rick took a job as a school principal, and we were there for two years.”

The crime rates are high in the Caribbean, and the lifestyle wasn’t as rewarding for the pair as island living might seem. Knowing they wanted to put their feet down in North Carolina, they returned to the states. “When we came back, we contemplated a lot of different things,” Linda divulges. “It was time for us to ground ourselves.”

As the stars aligned, Linda and Rick finally realized Brunswick County was where they should be. “So many of our friends are here; the water’s here,” she says. “It made sense—we needed to put down roots somewhere—and we figured since we kept coming back here, even if we weren’t smart enough to figure it out the first time, we should look at the historical pattern we followed.”

Their first home in the area was a custom built abode in Oak Island—the one home they’ve ever owned without it having any history. “We tried to make it look old,” Rick laughs, “put old stuff in it, built a vanity from an old dresser.”

Livingroom mantel; photo by Bethany Turner

“The builder loved carrying that cast-iron tub upstairs!” Linda chimes in. “We were just destined to be old-house people.”

Eventually they ended up in a small home in Southport which Jeff Ward, a respected local contractor, had worked on. “He specialized in old homes,” Rick says. “He was always a really nice guy. We’d call him up and say, ‘Hey, Jeff, can you come by and take care of something for us?’ And he’d say, ‘Sure, no problem.’” Sadly, in early May of 2011, Ward passed away after his shotgun accidentally discharged as he was unloading equipment from his Jeep.

Before his death, Ward bought an historic home on N. Lord Street in Southport in 2008 from a family who’d lived there for 40 years. His renovations included additions to the rear of the home, enlarging the kitchen and more, and completely restoring the home’s Victorian beauty. In 2009 he opened the house as the Robert Ruark Inn—because it once belonged to the famed author’s grandfather—and innkeepers ran the business for Ward.

“Jeff was a very particular builder, a great craftsman,” Rick explains. “He was doing it for himself so there’s probably a lot of extra stuff that he put in it, since he was going to own the inn and eventually sell it. He preserved so many of the historical features of the home. Anything he added to it, he made sure it carried through so it was consistent.”

Kitchen stove; photo by Bethany Turner

Even before the restoration of the inn, the Pukenases kept a watchful eye for any bed-and-breakfasts which might appear on the market, even employing a realtor’s help. They’d peruse the listings online to see if any of the inns were going up for sale, though they knew there were not many in the area.

One night the Pukenases joined their friend Lisa Botnick for dinner at Thai by the Sea. “It was the most expensive Thai dinner I ever had,” Linda jokes. “We’re sitting there eating, and Lisa says, ‘Linda, the Robert Ruark Inn—they lowered the price. I’ve never been inside; I’d love to see it.’ So we looked at it, and then a couple months later, we owned it!”

“It was a huge comfort knowing Jeff Ward had redone this house,” Rick admits. “We knew it would be done right.”

By March 2012, the bed-and-breakfast was reopened by the first-time innkeepers. The house came fully furnished—even to the glassware—and the website and brochures were already complete. “We only had to add value because we already had the foundation,” Linda says.

“When Jeff died, his father, Roger, was taking care of his estate—and his dad knows everything about the property,” she continues. “Roger always took care of the yard [of the inn] when Jeff owned it, so when Rick and I bought it, he was living in the apartment here. We asked if he wanted to stay, and he said yes. Roger has been a big part of the transition and a big part of the inn, and we consider him family. We’ve been very blessed to have him in our lives. Everyone who knows him loves him.”

Built in 1890, the inn was the home of Captain Edward Adkins, Ruark’s maternal grandfather. As a child, Ruark lived in Wilmington  with his parents Robert and Charlotte, but spent all of his summers and holidays in the Southport home. As he grew, Ruark became an internationally renowned writer with international topics, such as his safari hunts in Africa. He is celebrated as one of the best wildlife and outdoor writers in history.

With a degree in hand from the University of North Carolina and a world of experiences behind him, Ruark began a column for Field and Stream magazine in 1953. These stories detailed Ruark’s boyhood, mostly tales of Southport’s breathtaking nature and the importance of Captain Adkins in the child’s life. Several of the articles were combined as a book, “The Old Man and the Boy.” An excerpt recalls what Christmas in Southport was like for Ruark:

“The holiday season was pretty special for me. As soon as school let out, about the 20th, I took off for the little town where the Old Man lived, and I didn’t get back to my own city until the day before school started again. For better than two weeks I lived a life like I imagine it might have been in the old English-squire days, when they hung the halls with holly and it took three men and a boy to haul in the Yule log.”

The rooms of the Robert Ruark Inn harken to the Victorian era in which it was erected. The late Jeff Ward’s renovations only added value to the home, along with the Pukenases’ décor. Pictured is an antique from Virginia’s Room. Photo by Bethany Turner

“When his grandfather died of cancer during the Depression,” Rick tells, “he’d spent all of his money at the time on medical bills—there was no more money left, and the house went back to the bank.”

Captain Adkins, for which one of the inn’s rooms is named (as well as Robert Ruark Room, Charlotte’s Room, and Virginia’s Room, after Ruark’s wife), owed $2,800 on the home. “They knew the banker,” Rick continues, “and the banker told Robert, ‘Listen, if you ever want to buy it back, I’ll sell it to you for what’s owed. So he bought it in 1948 for $2,800.”

“Then when it sold,” Linda says, “it was to the family who had it for 40 years, and they lived here and finished raising their children here, and then Jeff bought it from them. So there really haven’t been that many owners.”

The Pukenas have elevated the standards of the beautiful renovation work Ward applied to this house by making personal touches to the inn. Their breakfasts are gourmet, cooked by Rick most mornings, and they offer a coffee and tea bar all day. Usually they’ll put out appetizers in the afternoon, such as mozzarella and tomatoes, or wine and cheese. As well, Rick guides a tour of Southport for guests, which has been a huge success.

“Our love for history, the coast, and just our love for Southport—we just kept boomeranging back,” Linda finishes. “It was just perfect, because our dream was always to own a bed-and-breakfast, and this one, of course, had some history to it.”

The Robert Ruark Inn will be one of several houses to participate in the Southport Historical Society’s 24th annual Christmas Tour of Homes on Sat., Dec., 8th from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Guests will be able to enjoy the architecture and aesthetic of these unique abodes, as well as their mirthful and elegant holiday décor.  Pre-sale tickets are $10, available at  Southport Visitors Center, Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce, Franklin Square Gallery and The Latimer House in Wilmington. For more information, call 457-7927.

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