The Fenton Hotel, a former inn-turned-gourmet restaurant in the small, mid-state town of Fenton in Genesee County, is an establishment that prides itself on hanging onto things from its historic past. All the original tin ceilings still adorn the dining room, and the foyer looks much as it did back in stagecoach days. The second story’s glory days still exists in its tile-floor ballroom, the communal men’s and women’s bathrooms and the dingy corner room once reserved for Emery, the place’s late, longtime custodian. But the old brick building retains something far beyond old chairs and ancient porcelain fixtures in its aging halls.
Many people say the Fenton Hotel still hosts Emery, himself, along with an entire cast of ghostly hangers-on. People can hear Emery walking around in his former upstairs digs, his footsteps reverberating in the tin ceiling. Sometimes he thumps on the walls after customers leave, as if to tell the staff to get a move on. But Emery was a gentleman, say staff members at the Fenton. That’s how they know it’s some other ghost that sometimes gropes the arms or buttocks of unsuspecting waitresses.
And there are other spooks, each specter with his or her unique “signature” activity. The restaurant hostess told Weird Michigan in hushed tones that the incidents are not a thing of the past, either. “Things are still going on,” she said ominously as she seated us at one of the green linen-covered tables. We ordered baked brie from the extensive menu and waited for the unseen hotel guests to arrive and float around us. Surrounded by intricate stained glass windows and well-preserved architecture, it was easy to envision patrons of yesteryear enjoying the evening alongside the contemporary crowd.
Built in 1856, the Fenton boasts its own official state historical marker, which explains that the interior is still much the same, although the exterior’s old front porch fell victim to a team of runaway horses in 1904. The side of the building that faces the parking lot is embellished with paintings of ghostly inhabitants from another time, which only adds to the feeling of having stepped back into another century.
The bar area on the other side of the foyer is probably the building’s hottest ghost spot. A bartender named Brittany told Weird Michigan that she was standing at her work station one evening when one of the wine glasses hanging by its stem from a slotted nook suddenly flew off its perch and sailed across the bar, crashing and breaking. She has also heard someone call her name when no one else was in the room, felt something brush her leg, and on several occasions, customers have told her they saw someone hugging her at a time when she could see or feel no one.
Besides the phantom cuddler, there is the recurring case of the mysterious man at table 32. Every now and then, a man seated there will order a shot of Jack Daniels on the rocks and the bartender will duly pour one, but upon attempting to serve it to the “customer,” finds nothing but thin air. Speculation is that one of the house ghosts wants a drink badly enough to show himself and order one, but ultimately lacks the cash to pay for it and the throat to gulp it down.
The dining room is active, too. Two waitresses have spotted a disappearing black cat running across the floor. One staff person told us that last December, one of the ghosts decided to make merry by grabbing the posteriors of several waitresses, who invariably whirled around only to find no visible face to slap. December seems to be one of the restaurant’s most active months for hauntings, said one waitress. “It’s like they get excited with all the decorations and the parties,” she noted. She also said that staff have heard ghostly voices admonishing them that “no personal calls” are allowed, and that sometimes a man’s voice comes out of the bar speakers, either singing along with entertainers or making comments to customers.
Weird Michigan was able to take a guided tour of the closed upper level, which generally is not allowed since it is used for storage and many of the old rooms are no longer in good repair. We didn’t see anything unusual; even Emery’s small, cold room was quiet, although we couldn’t help but wonder if the old custodian was upset at our intrusion. But while standing in the darkened hallway, one of us heard a female voice whispering close by that we could not explain. Strangest of all was the fact that after we descended the stairs, we found a small glob of melted candle wax near the viewfinder on our digital camera. There was no candle on our dining room table, and we saw none on the second floor. The wax globule was not there earlier while we were shooting other pictures. Perhaps one of the old hotel guests was examining us at closer range than we realized, using the lighting methods available in 1856! Or maybe someone was trying to tell us not to look at the upper story inhabitants through that viewfinder.
The book Haunted Michigan by Gerald S. Hunter devotes an entire chapter to the multi-spirited Fenton Hotel, and includes tales of various apparitions seen by staff and customers, including the face of a bearded man outside a second story window, a tall man in a black top hat, and a strange figure who actually took payment from several customers.
One other strange incident happened as Weird Michigan enjoyed the bizarre ambience of the Fenton Hotel. A dining room guest said she was in the ladies’ room, sitting in the third stall, when she felt someone touch her hair and lift up a few strands. She thought that was odd, so we asked the waitress about it and her eyes grew wide.
“Back when the hotel was open,” she said, “the cheaper rooms on the third floor were rented by working girls in the town. Rumor is that one of them got pregnant by a hotel patron, and she hung herself in the hotel. Other people have seen her in that third stall.”
According to a hotel brochure, several sÃ©ances have been performed on the premises, but the ghosts seem determined to stay. Perhaps for them, the Fenton Hotel is like the Eagles song hit song Hotel Californiaâ€¦ “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
You can order Weird Michigan online from Barnes & Noble and at fine bookstores everywhere. Check out a whole lot more Michigan oddities from ghosts and goblins to people and places that are just a little bit – or a lot – strange!
Linda Godfrey grew up in Milton, Wisconsin, spending the majority of her time doing the same things she does now; reading, writing, making art and reading comics. She continues to create commercial art (represented by Tom Stocki at artfactoryltd.com) and fine art, and often illustrates her own books, specializing in cut paper collage and forensic drawings of strange creatures from witness descriptions. She lives in rural Elkhorn with her husband, Steven, with whom she has two grown sons who are remarkably tolerant of their mother’s weird career.
Artwork for this article by Andy McFarlane, who enjoys Photoshop probably a bit too much.