Steaks & Spirits at The Country Squire Inn
This Duplin County restaurant is a local haunt in more ways than oneBy Emory Rakestraw
It’s a typical night at The Country Squire Restaurant, Inn and Winery. Diners sip martinis and Manhattans when suddenly, from the idle dartboard, darts whiz through the air unprovoked. Speechless patrons are mixed with nonchalant guests partial to the Squire’s haunting legend.
This story recounted by current owner Iris Lennon doesn’t exist on a singular spectrum. Aside from the colorful dinner menu of Korean beef, New York strip, and stuffed potatoes, the labyrinth of rooms lend themselves to tales more infamous than the restaurant’s 72-ounce “Kilt Buster” steak.
“Many years ago, one of the waitresses saw a wee girl sitting on the steps,” Iris says. “Years after, four folks came out for dinner. One of the ladies wanted to take a picture. As she was snapping it, her friend turned and the wee girl was standing beside her, wearing exactly what the waitress described years ago.”
Over the years, paranormal investigators have flocked to the Squire, including Port City Paranormal of Wilmington, and Haunted North Carolina Paranormal Research and Investigations. Iris welcomes each, allowing them to explore the multitude of rooms after she locks up for the night. Introduced to the Squire by a group of paranormal investigators, Michael La Chiana has been researching here since 2010 — Iris refers to him as the Squire’s in-house investigator.
Using thermal cameras, audio recorders, and a DSLR camera, he has captured a multitude of phenomena. Michael has recorded a girl’s voice asking the whereabouts of the Squire’s (now deceased) outdoor cat: “See Hannah Thistle?” There’s a thermal image of a woman floating midair, and a picture of what he believes is a disembodied head poking up from a planter.
With a history that predates the Revolutionary War, the Squire was originally surrounded by 300 acres of family-owned land. Today, it’s a seven-acre tract off NC Highway 50 between Kenansville and Warsaw. Michael believes the ghosts are a mix of souls who predate the Squire and others who tagged along with the mixed materials used by original owner Joe West, a former schoolteacher when the restaurant was built in 1961.
“Joe West was a scavenger. He’d go in and anything he could find he would put it in here. The brick, the wood, this whole place is built from different places,” Michael says. “The McGowan Farmhouse dates to 1780 — Joe moved it to the Squire as an addition.”
Today, the McGowan Farmhouse serves as the Tartan Wine Tasting Room and Gift Shop, showcasing the original hardwood flooring. Ask Iris, and she’ll show you the sepia-toned photo of the decrepit farmhouse, wherein the lower-left window sits what appears to be the wee girl’s apparition. From the Jester’s Court to the Pantry Room, an array of makeshift spaces comprise the Squire. Yet the heart and pulse is the original cabin restaurant that Joe built by hand.
“Terry Southerland has worked here since the Squire opened. When Joe West was teaching school, Terry was his student. For the log cabin, Joe hired some of his students and men to cut down the trees,” says Squire employee Jenny Bratcher. “They used crosscut saws, axes, and a horse team. Terry was one of the kids, he still comes in and hand-cuts meat to this day.”
Preserving a landmark
Inside the cavernous restaurant, daylight seeps through small windows amid a void of time and space. There are candles dripping wax and tables hung by chains that rattle in darkness. In the Wine Cellar Walkway, a bowl of apples sits beneath paranormal certificates, while jester puppets dangle about the Tavern windows. Turn a corner toward Mead Hall, and you’re greeted by a live tree the structure was built around. The 460-seat Squire isn’t just a steakhouse but a landmark, one Iris has preserved since Joe’s passing in 1995.
While the eclectic décor remains untouched, Iris has added her native Scotch touch. The Burns Supper, her January event filled with bagpipes and dancing, honors Scottish poet Robert Burns. In her 44 years as employee-turned-owner, she has felt respectful to both guests and ghosts.
“The Squire was Joe’s passion. He’s definitely around here somewhere — he might even be listening to me,” laughs Iris. “I’m like every employee. I’ve heard voices, music and witnessed things that made me say, ‘hmm?’”
Guests range from beachgoers to Duplin County locals. Iris says while some know of the hauntings, others don’t. What was Joe’s life work is best summed up by a sign out front, which reads: “Who passes thru this friendly gate comes neither too early, nor stays too late.”
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