On any given night you might hear the sounds of banging, thumping and bloodcurdling howls emanating throughout the Stanhope House, a tavern, music venue and former rooming house near the banks of Lake Musconetcong in Stanhope, NJ. Usually though, those plaintive wails are just the sound of one of the legendary blues acts that have been playing the club since back in the early 1970s… but that is not always the case. You see, according to some, the Stanhope House also plays host to an entirely different kind of “soul” that haunts the place—the spirits of guests who have checked into the inn over the years and never checked out. The honky-tonk is rife with stories of the resident ghosts randomly opening and closing doors and moving objects about the place and unexplained footsteps are heard walking around the upper floors when no one is there. According to the staff, though, at least one of the ghosts is the helpful sort—employees have arrived to find glasses that were left dirty and in disarray the night before, clean and neatly put away.
Stories of multiple tragic deaths, including murders, suicides and death by fire, pepper the 222-year history of the Stanhope House, making it a likely spot for restless spirits to hang around. Originally built in 1790 as a single-family home, what we know as the Stanhope House today would have a number of different names and incarnations, including serving as a post office, a general store, a stagecoach stop and eventually an inn (some allege it was also a brothel). When the Morris Canal was constructed across northern New Jersey between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, it ran virtually right past the door of the inn. The canal was in operation from the 1820s to 1920s and when workers needed somewhere to stay, the Stanhope House became a rooming house to accommodate them. There were about 30 rooms on the second floor, and on the third floor in the attic, where it was routinely over 100 degrees in the summer, there were another 20-30 small rooms added for the more aromatic of the workers, such as the muleskinners and the drovers. From its very early days, there has always been a tavern in the building in one form or another.
In the early 1970s, a family named Wrobleski bought the bar and transformed it into the establishment we see today, with a full bar, a restaurant and a stage for live music. Current owner Jon Klein describes the early days of the Wrobleski-owned bar this way: “They were basically a shot and a beer joint, a real dive bar, bucket of blood. And Mama Wrobleski would cook in the morning, bacon and eggs for a dollar. You could get three shots for a dollar, and a dollar lunch. There was fighting in the club, fornicating in the parking lot, all kinds of crazy things. But throughout these things that happened, there were these great blues bands that kept rolling in. The Wrobleski era is what really put the place on the map.”
The music has been the main draw at the Stanhope House every since the Wrobleski’s started booking big-name blues acts back in the early 1970s. This was mostly the doing of Phil Wrobleski, who loved the music and brought the bands in to play. Even though the Stanhope House was off the beaten path, no matter where you might happen to be going, the musicians did come to play, one great after another. The roster of talent reads like a who’s who of blues-rock history. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Dr. John, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Billy Branch, Lonnie Mack, Son Seals, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hubert Sumlin, Johnny Copeland, Richie Havens, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Albert King and Buddy Guy all performed on the Stanhope House stage, most more than once.
The Stanhope House’s website describes the scene “back in the day” this way: “Picture Muddy Waters’ deep, grainy voice trading chicken recipes with former club Matron, Mama Wrobleski or the original Hoochie Coochie Man, Willie Dixon stopping by for Thanksgiving dinner. All of it happened at The Stanhope House…”
The Wrobleski’s owned and operated the Stanhope House from around 1973 to 1988. Throughout that period, the atmosphere of the club more closely resembled an Old West saloon or barrelhouse in the Deep South than a bar in North Jersey. The ceiling was covered in smoke-tarnished pressed tin and the walls in drab green wainscoting. Stained glass lamps and windows hung over round wooden tables. The floorboards were roughly hewn knotty planks. Like the home cooking that was offered from the kitchen, the décor of the juke joint was decidedly rustic.
The Stanhope House continued to rent rooms right up through the 1980s. Then, in the mid-1990s, a new owner named Maureen Meyers installed two apartment suites upstairs that replaced a number of the rooms on the second floor. A fire earlier in the building’s history destroyed the rooms on the third floor, and when it was rebuilt, the attic became storage space. The club changed hands a number of times until it was closed in 2008. It remained dark for the next two years until Jon Klein came along in 2010 and seized an opportunity to make a long-standing dream of his come true. Klein, a professional blues singer and musician, had played at the Stanhope House going all the way back to the mid-1980s. In addition to being a musician, Jon is also a bit of a real estate entrepreneur and wanted to buy the place from the Wrobleski’s when they were selling it in ’88, but didn’t have the money or resources to manage the kitchen at the time, so he passed on the chance. When it came up for sale again in 2010, Jon didn’t let the opportunity of owning the place pass him by a second time.
“I think the first time I came here might have been to see Billy Hector.” Jon recalls. “I just loved the club. And I loved its authenticity. And so I decided that if it was available, I would take a shot at it. Lo and behold I was lucky enough to be able to get it, and now we’re just rolling along, busting our tails, trying to make a go of it as a start-up business because once it went dark for those two years, it was like it never existed.”
I asked Jon if he knew of any kind of stories or rumors from the Stanhope House’s history that might cause the unrest of some of the spirits present there.
“The only one that we remember was when it was still an inn,” he said. “Apparently there was a dispute over a woman, back in the 1800s, and one guy killed another guy in some part of the inn. We don’t know where exactly. I also know that there was supposedly a fire that happened in the attic and 10, 15, or 20 people perished, way back when.”
The man responsible for booking the entertainment at the club these days is Michael “Sweets” Ambrose. Sweets told me, “On the lighter side of things, we do have evidence that it was a speakeasy. We found booze buried in the dirt floor in the basement. We had an elderly gentleman come in just looking around one day, and he told us a story about how his father used to come here and bring him. This was in the 1920s or the 1930s. His father used to come in on vacations, and sitting at the bar would be Babe Ruth. We also know that Babe Ruth used to lead the Stanhope Memorial Day Parade and he would apparently pop in here, in the heyday.”
The stories of the speakeasy, the liquor in the basement, and Babe Ruth’s presence can all actually be confirmed by a single prohibition era photo that depicts a smiling Babe standing in the Stanhope House basement, holding a baseball bat in one hand and leaning on it as if it were a cane. In his other hand, the Bambino holds a beer.
According to Jon, “The hearsay of part of the house is that before it was even constructed, that there was a nobleman, that got a grant from the King of England for 12,000 acres and built an outdoor kitchen, fire hearth, with a big cooking area, where the servants could literally walk into the mouth of, with the black pot hanging on the hook, and he also built up a 40-foot deep circular well, Ferguson well, using local stone, really supposedly perfectly formed. And both the hearth and the well are inside this building.”
It might unnerve some customers in the dining room if they were to know that one of the tables there actually sits directly over the old well. All one has to do is slide that particular table aside and open up a hatch in the dining room floor, and you are staring down into the dark maw of a 40-foot deep pit lined with ancient fieldstones. If you have a light strong enough to reach the bottom, you can gaze down the shaft and see the still, inky black waters that lay there.
I asked Jon if he knew of any past residents in particular that have met their demise in the Stanhope House that might still call it home.
“In one of the rooms, lived a man named George…something Polish…something ‘ski,’” he told us. “In the ‘70s he hung himself upstairs, in his room, which turns out to be in the renovated spot where I live now, about a foot and a half over my shoulder where I work every day. And I remember when I first got the place, the suite was already there, I felt—I still do—feel uneasy up there. And when I told the psychic that she said, ‘You know, that’s the sign of a presence.’ And I just thought to myself, that could be some sensitivity that I have or it could be hogwash. Or it could be that I’ve heard a bunch of stories. And I just continue to work, and for whatever reason, I still feel anxious in there.”
And that’s apparently not the only room upstairs where weird encounters have been experienced.
“My son had a brush with something in the back bedroom,” Jon said. “I see on a fairly regular basis, out of the corner of my eye, a shadow here or there. Always in the same two places. Which I didn’t think anything of until my wife suddenly out of the blue, after being here for two and a half years, blurts out to me about two weeks ago, ‘You ever see shadows upstairs?’ And I said, ‘By the fireplace on the right side?’ And she said, ‘Yeah. And over by the plant, by the window?’ ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’s where I see them!’”
But the specters in the Stanhope House don’t only appear as shadows in upstairs corners. Sometimes they come down to the main room and move things around. Jon recalls one such occasion.
“Pete and I… Pete’s my sidekick, he tends bar here, makes sure the place is neat and clean, orders the booze, good guy. So we’ve been in it together here from day one. But the first six months, we’re trying to get it back together. And we used to stay out in the main room at a big round table, over where the fireplace is. And working at the tables, chock full of drawings, all kinds of crap. Sometimes we’d be there late, you know, one or two o’clock in the morning. It turned out this one night I was there late, and I was doing my work and the door to the sound closet opens. It just swings open. I’m 68 years old, and I don’t go into hysterics every time something like that happens. I just watched it open, went about my business. A few minutes go by and I get up and go close it. It clicked close, and I come back, sit down, five minutes go by and sure enough, it opens again, very slowly. So I walked over to it again, and I close it, and after I close it the second time, I went out to the middle of the dance floor, totally alone. I said, ‘Look, I love it here. It’s like I died and went to heaven. You ain’t never getting me out of here. I’m going to get buried in the basement like they do in England, where the guy, Newton and all, was buried in Westminster Abbey. So if you’ve got something you’re trying to tell me, let it roll.’”
Perhaps the most disconcerting run-in with something unexplainable at the Stanhope House was experienced by Ambrose while down in the basement of the building. The encounter happened in a small, musty area known as the “rotgut” room, which was once used to store liquor. It’s a claustrophobic little space with a low ceiling, dirt floor and very old stone walls that make up the foundation of the house. Sweets tells the tale this way…
“Let me preface this by saying I’m the world’s biggest skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts, spooks, spiritualists, supernatural, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I am marginally atheist… So I’m down here and I’m doing wiring work with a small flashlight. I’m wearing a work suit and facemask and goggles and I’m sweating. This is during the day. About 10-11:00 in the morning. And I don’t want to be down here because it’s June, it’s hot as hell. And I’m pissed. And so I’m kicking up dust, I’m swearing, I’m sweating, and I’m making noise, making a mess, just pissed off in general, and very rapidly the room gets ice cold. Like that—it’s cold. And I feel something standing behind my right shoulder. It’s breathing on me, and it’s pissed off. And it just doesn’t want me in here. So I finished my wiring work and I got the hell out of here. I haven’t been here since.
“I’ve had nightmares three times since, but I don’t believe in this stuff. I don’t have ghost stories, other people do. I think everyone who has got these stories are full of shit. Until I had this unexplained… I can’t explain it. I don’t want to explain it, and I don’t like being in this room. But I now think that there’s something here. And there’s something here that just doesn’t want to be bothered. I think that’s it. It just makes you feel like, as soon as you get negative, it gets negative. As soon as you get frustrated, the place gets kind of negative on you.”
And so it would seem that the Stanhope House is haunted from the rafters of its attic all the way down to its stony basement foundation. With such a long rich past of both supernatural and musical history, it’s a unique and unusual landmark. The new owners have spruced up the décor a bit, making it look a little more like a funky blues club now rather than its former juke joint appearance, but have still managed to retain the authentic vibe that made the Stanhope the cool place that it was. I asked Klein what the future might hold for this venerable old establishment. He told me that the plan is to keep the tradition of great live music going and to try to spread the word that the club will continue to be one of the last bastions of blues, rock and soul around today.
“We’ve done all kinds of tv, radio, newspapers, periodicals, internet—you name it, we’ve been there.” He said with pride, but then lamented, “Still, most people don’t know we’re around. We’ve got to figure out a way to stay in the business long enough for people to find out who we are.”
Whether you’re searching for spooks or just want to hear some great live music while enjoying your beer, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll find what you’re looking for at the Stanhope House. Hopefully both varieties of “spirits,” the paranormal and imbibe-able kinds, will have a home here for many years to come. It’s one of the last great American roadhouses—and it’s found just down the road, in Stanhope, New Jersey.
Upcoming Shows At The Stanhope House
09/12 The Pfeiffer Twins
09/13 The Casualties
09/14 New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Electric Frankenstein