WARSAW — A sign outside of The Country Squire in Warsaw reads, “Who passes thru this friendly gate comes neither too early nor stays too late.” And according to the restaurant’s owner and staff members, several guests may have taken that invocation to heart, lingering in the Squire’s maze-like corridors long after their own personal closing times.
The Country Squire’s owner, Iris Lennon, says she has seen and heard things at the Warsaw landmark that would make many people question both their sanity and their safety.
“You see doors opening and hear sounds. But more than anything, it’s just a feeling that there’s a presence around.”
The Country Squire staff, many of whom have worked there for the better part of their adult lives, have their own tales to tell about disembodied voices, disappearing figure in black cloaks, and objects that move as if touched by an unseen hand.
As one of the Squire’s most senior employees, Terry Southerland has spent over five decades roaming its floors and shadowed halls. Southerland, who helped construct the Squire’s original buildings, says that while he hasn’t experienced as many strange events as other employees, he has “heard and seen a few things that I was like, ‘Is this what I’m really seeing or is this my imagination?’”
One of those strange occurrences happened in early November, as Southerland was working near the two doors that lead from the winery to the tavern.
“There was no one in here except me, and all of a sudden the door opens about a foot. I looked around, because the door squeaks, and there’s nobody there. So I go to the door and push it open and go back to where I was, and the door opens again. What it was I don’t know. It just opened and closed twice.”
Southerland was also present for one of the more startling acts of paranormal activity to occur at the Squire, one that was witnessed by several diners.
“This happened in the old days before there was a bar and a lounge. People were eating in the dining room and all of sudden the darts just backed off the dartboard and hit the floor, then they got back up and went back to the dartboard. In other words, it looked like somebody picked them up and put them back.”
The dartboard in question can still be seen in the Squire’s dining room.
According to another longtime Squire employee, Jennifer Bratcher, a mysterious figure has been spotted in the Squire’s bar.
“I was seating a table and noticed there was a guy sitting at the bar,” remembers Bratcher. “I didn’t make eye contact because I was writing, but I went in the kitchen to tell the waitress that there was somebody in there. So I went back to see if the guy needed a drink and there was nobody there.”
Bratcher said the most unnerving things she’s experienced at the Squire are glasses falling off shelves and door latches that move of their own accord.
On a lighter note, Bratcher said over the years she’s learned to save money on replacing light bulbs in the restaurant’s pantry. “I found out you do not immediately go get another light bulb just because one appears to have gone out. You just screw them back in because, somehow, they come unscrewed.”
Merian Farmer, who has worked at The Country Squire for the past 28 years, has also had her share of strange experiences at the restaurant.
“There were three of us up here one morning and it sounded like someone was dragging a chair across the floor,” she recalled. “We looked but there was nobody out there.”
Farmer says, approximately eight years ago, she saw a figure in a black trench coat walk through the kitchen and then vanish. She claims her mother, Macy, had a similar experience when she worked at the Squire in the mid-1980s.
Unlike some of the other staff members, Farmer says she finds the incidents frightening. “I think they are (ghosts) but my mind [doesn’t] want to say it, because if I did I probably couldn’t come in here any more.”
According to Lennon, The Country Squire’s history contributes significantly to its unique atmosphere and may explain its otherworldly inhabitants.
The restaurant was begun by Joe West, a former Duplin County schoolteacher, who bought 23 acres of land, salvaged parts from farmhouses, and cut timber with a group of Duplin County men to build the restaurant, which opened in 1961. Over the years, the main building has been extended three times and now seats 400 people.
According to Lennon, the Squire was built using parts from old, history-laden structures from across Duplin County and other areas of eastern North Carolina.
“Some of the brick was taken from the old Bowden hotel; paneling in the pantry came out of an old schoolhouse, and part came from somewhere in Wilmington,” she recalls.
Having purchased the restaurant in 1993, Lennon says she tries to retain the vision West established.
“I could see how, as many years of blood and sweat and tears that Joe West put into this place, it could be a little bit of him here too, as well as others who worked here for years and years.”.
Lennon compares the restaurant to a quilt put together by many hands over the years to form a unique whole.
“Each piece has its own personality and memories that fill the air with echoes of all the people who have celebrated different events here,” Lennon says
That explanation is borne out by Bratcher, who says she’s heard what sounds like talking and laughter coming from the pantry on nights when the doors are locked and no one else is in the building.
“I think it’s just the residual energy,” Bratcher surmises, “when you hear people talking and laughing, from years and years of people coming out and having fun.”
Southerland has his own theories, attributing some of the occurrences to two people whose lives came to an end at the Squire: a Warsaw resident who died on the dance floor and a man who had a heart attack in the bathroom.
“I think they’re just walking around checking things out,” he states.
In order to validate the claims of the Squire staff, Lennon has allowed several paranormal specialists to conduct investigations at the restaurant.
Haunted North Carolina, Inc. conducted investigations at the Country Squire in July and August of 2009. According to their report, three teams set up in different sections of the restaurant and observed a “light anomaly” float across the floor at the same time as a sudden battery drain in one of their motion detectors. On the second investigation, teams reported getting direct response on EMF meters in the attic as well as hearing unexplained voices.
“Sufficient evidence (both anecdotal and tangible) has been collected for HNC to certify The Country Squire as ‘paranormally active,’” the report concluded.
Stephen Lancaster, founder of the paranormal investigation team P.I.T. Crew, is also a frequent visitor. Lancaster, who uses high tech equipment during his research, has conducted several ghost tours at the Squire.
According to Bratcher, the paranormal research has revealed the presence of a young girl who seems to inhabit the restaurant. A photo taken by visitors to the Squire may offer proof of that presence.
“A mother and daughter had just finished a wine tasting,” Bratcher recalls. “They were taking pictures in the pantry and the mother took a photo of her daughter across the room. The daughter said she felt something beside her and turned just as the photo was taken.”
In the picture, what appears to be the form of a young girl wearing a light blue dress can be seen behind the young woman.
Audra Miller, who has worked at the Squire for the past 21 years, says she believes there are several entities inhabiting the building. “It must be like a meeting place; it’s just hard to explain. There’s definitely something here.”
While the bizarre and seemingly paranormal events would drive many to seek employment elsewhere, The Country Squire staff said they were proud of the restaurant’s history and the memories that linger there.
“There’s nothing scary here; there’s just stuff here,” asserts Bratcher, motioning down the long hallway that leads to the Squire’s entrance.
“It’s not just a restaurant; it’s not just a job,” says Lennon. “It’s got all this along with it as well as the employees who have been here for so long.”
For his part, Southerland says he plans to haunt the establishment he helped build for many years to come.
“I’m going to be right here; right here. You can scatter my ashes out here, so I’ll never leave.”