By Kevin Ward
There is something about strolling in Wilmington’s historic downtown—in some ways, you can imagine yourself in another time. Many of the buildings that now house some of our favorite bars, restaurants, and stores have been around since the days of the Civil War, and they have changed very little in that time. Most of these historic structures, if not all, have their share of tragedy and untimely death attached to them, and from some of these we end up with stories of earthbound spirits who chose to haunt the living.
At 9th N. Front Street stands one such building. Today we know this location as Front Street Brewery, but when it started life it was not in the Microbrew business. In 1865, about the time the Civil War was reaching its bloody conclusion, the first tenants opened for business a simple dry goods store. For the next 30 years a few different stores opened and closed their doors to the public, but it was not until 1895 that Polvogt and Co. came to use the building. Polvogt was an early department store. It sold a number of everyday needs such as clothing, hats, and carpets. Being a business that sold dresses and other clothing, meant that a good source of lighting was very important, which may have been a factor in their decision to construct the light well that still sits atop the building to this day.
While this addition was being added, a German immigrant by the name of Henry Wenzel was busy looking for work. He and his wife had recently moved from Charleston, SC and were trying to make a go of it in this new city. Henry was a painter by trade, and a new light well just wouldn’t be complete without a spiffy new coat of paint. It seemed like a perfect fit, and he was hired by Polvogt.
It was the 1st of November in 1895 when Henry showed up to what he thought would be a quick days work, but sadly he could not have been more wrong. He was standing 40 feet from the ground as he worked. For someone like me that would be a deal breaker, but for Henry it was nothing special. Henry was sure footed and not one to be frightened by heights, which makes what happened next even more puzzling. Somehow Henry lost his footing, maybe it was the paint fumes, maybe a sudden case of vertigo or possibly just really bad luck, but that poor German immigrant feel all 40 feet and landed with a sickening thud on the stores heavy metal cash register. Reports of the day say he died immediately on impact, his neck snapped in twain.
Henry’s death was carried in the paper the following day. It brought a number of people to Polvogt store, a few to pay respect, but most were folks with a morbid curiosity. For a few weeks it was all anyone could talk about. As time went on, Henry and his untimely death became largely forgotten by the people of Wilmington, which is how life goes. Over the next hundred years, other stores came and went, none reporting anything weird or supernatural happening in the aging building, but in 1995 that changed. It was in that year that Front Street Brewery opened its doors to Wilmington’s hungry and thirsty citizens. Soon this new business would stir up the buildings long forgotten spirit.
Henry in his life spent some time working in a brewery in Charleston, which is maybe why he waited till Front Street Brewery came to be before he decided to start causing mischief. It was the staff at first that noticed him, after all they are in the building the most. The spirit of Henry is mostly felt and experienced on the third floor of the brewery. More than one member of the staff has found themselves closing the restaurant down on the first floor only to hear the sound of heavy boots walking on the completely empty third floor. Other times Henry likes to play with the Brewery elevator;the elevator used by Front Street is from a bygone era. It has a heavy metal gate that takes some effort to open and close, so it can be understood why it is unsettling when the gate is seen sliding open by itself, which has happened in more than one instance.
Some really unfortunate (or fortunate depending on your view) people actually see the famed specter in all his ethereal glory. One such scary encounter happened in the underbelly of Front Street to then Head Brewer Kevin Kozak. In the early hours of the morning, Kozak was working away in his office when he looked out his window which should have shown nothing more then a room full of beer brewing equipment, however, he saw a bearded man in grey walk by. He stood up to greet the man who he assumed would be walking into his office at any moment, but no man ever walked in. He first searched the entire brewing room to see if he could locate any living soul, but he had no luck with this mission. He came to the conclusion it was their resident ghost and decided to take his break early that day.
Despite giving them a scare now and then, the staff of Front Street actually enjoys Henry. In fact, every winter when they first brew Henry’s Helles Bock Lager, the first pint is poured and left on the bar for their Germanic ghost. So if you happen to find yourself on 9th N. Front Street, make sure to say hello to Henry and raise a glass to him, just hope he doesn’t decide to show himself to you!
Kevin Ward is the author of North Carolina Haunts and South Carolina Haunts, both available on BarnesandNoble.com.