But is it haunted? This is the question most people ask about the Roseberry House. Located in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, this house stood as a silent witness during the birth pains of a new nation, as horses gave way to automobiles and when the first light bulb pushed back the night. If Frank Greenagel and the rest of the Phillipsburg Area Historical Society (PAHS) have anything to say about it, the Roseberry House will be standing strong and serving as a community hub when the OSIRIS-REx returns to Earth in 2023, laden with surface samples from the asteroid Bennu.
As a new member of PAHS, I was desperately curious about the Roseberry House and its history. After reading everything I could lay my hands on, I was surprised to discover how much is known and how deeply the roots of this structure penetrate into the historical fabric of Colonial era New Jersey. I was even more startled to learn that basic information about the origins of the Roseberry House remains shrouded in the mists of time.
The land where the old house sits was first purchased by Colonel Daniel Coxe in 1714 from a Native American tribe, the Lenni Lenape. One of the original One Percenters, Colonel Coxe was the son of the physician to the English king. Coxe gave a portion of the 1250-acre tract of land to his granddaughter and her husband and subsequently, the property was broken into smaller parcels. Sometime between 1765 and 1769, land was sold to Peter Kinney, who would later be commissioned as an Ensign in the First Regiment of the Sussex Militia during the Revolutionary War. In the economic chaos following the war, Kinney found himself unable to pay his debts, so in 1787, the 152-acre farm was sold at a sheriff’s sale. The property was purchased by John Roseberry, a German immigrant originally known as Johannes Rosenberger before anglicizing his name. John and his wife Maria had seven children and the Roseberry House became a legacy to three generations of the family. After 1886, the house changed hands a few more times before ultimately being leased by the Town of Phillipsburg to PAHS, who acts as administrator of the property and is actively preserving and restoring the historic home.
Exactly when the house was constructed remains a deep mystery. Based on the size and shape of nails found in the structure, the house was most likely built sometime between 1780 and 1790. Like many historic homes in Warren County, the Roseberry House is built of hardy limestone. Constructed in the Georgian architectural style, the house has a fearsome symmetry with four, equal-sized rooms bisected by a center hall on each of the first and second floors. The strict layout of the architectural elements had been softened by decorative stenciling of a multicolored floral pattern that one time graced the walls of both front rooms and the hallway. The stenciling miraculously still survives on the walls of the formal parlor, the front left room where visitors during the eighteenth century would have been entertained. The front right room would have been used as a dining room, while the left back room served as the Colonial version of a man-cave. The right back room was reserved for the lady of the house as a place where she might have enjoyed the company of friends. Joined to the house on the northeast side is the beating heart of the home, a kitchen with a monstrous fireplace that occupies almost an entire wall. To the right of this inferno, a door unexpectedly opens to a winder staircase that leads to a low-ceilinged loft. This was very likely the warmest room on a cold night, given its proximity to the kitchen fire and perhaps designated for the children of the house or a favored servant. With an attic above the main house and a full cellar below, the house is larger than many contemporary structures and gives us insight into the lifestyle of a well-to-do farmer during the late 1700s.
I have explored the old house on several occasions, each time imagining what the house must have looked like in its heyday and the bustle of a large family striving to make a go of it in the uncertain years following the Revolution. Experiencing the character of the Roseberry House so intimately has led me to weave it into a tale of haunting in the upcoming sequel to Soul Search, currently a work in progress. Each visit to the old homestead informs my senses anew and leaves me with a deeper appreciation for what life was like in the past.
My obsession with the Roseberry House stems from a lifelong fascination with history and archaeology. Driven by this fangirl ideology, I have had the privilege to experience several ancient and historical sites up close and personal. My husband Rich and I have a preference for hiking holidays that go off-road and lead to areas less frequented by other tourists. Aside from being an ideal holiday for an introvert, this mode of travel also makes ruins accessible that are difficult if not impossible to reach by car. (I have frequently threatened to create a website with pictures of cows from around the world that I have petted during our hikes. This hobby is perhaps only understood by other introverts.) If you have an interest in taking a hiking holiday and you are not in ideal shape, I’d recommend reading a previous post on pickle juice to help you through the rough parts of your trail. While the Scottish Highlands may not be the best choice for beginner hikers, they are a beautiful destination and something to aspire to, owing to the dramatic scenery and abundant historical sites.
During one hiking holiday in the Highlands of Scotland, Rich volunteered to fix the website of a bed and breakfast where we were staying. Delighted with the free help, the innkeeper took us on a backstage tour of Loch Ness and obtained permission from a local farmer to see a ring of Neolithic standing stones on his property. I love artifacts from the Bronze Age and was in heaven dodging the sheep dip and exploring the stones for any signs of cup marks and other carvings. Later on this trip, we investigated a more tourist-friendly area near Culloden Battlefield called Clava Cairn, a collection of Neolithic circular chamber tombs. You know from a previous post that I am a Curious Introvert and therefore you would not be surprised to learn that I crept into a tomb in an attempt to gain the ancestral perspective on death, burial and rebirth. Aside from royally abusing my knees as I cautiously crawled along the stony passageway leading to the tomb, the sensory experience in the burial chamber was disappointingly cold and sterile. I found out later that after the tombs had been picked clean by archaeologists, they were dismantled and reassembled. In making the tombs safe as a tourist attraction, something of the atmosphere had been irrevocably lost.
In stark contrast, the Colonial Yule Celebration at the Roseberry House is redolent with impressions from the past. The night of the celebration is cold and dark and a chill pervades the house. Like many old structures, the air has a slightly peppery scent and odd currents and eddies manifest to produce unexpected cold spots. The glow of candlelight offers no real warmth, but illuminates a mantel festooned with red ribbons and white popcorn strung in long chains. A garland of fresh pine boughs draped on the mantel lends its spicy scent to the rich, sweet smell of chestnuts roasting in the kitchen hearth. In the formal parlor, lively period music played by a lone fiddler invites us to partake in the festivities, but sound is deceptive. There is almost an echo of something held in the walls, reverberating just under the sounds of the present. The harder you listen for it, the fainter the strains of that something becomes until the echo can be felt more easily than heard. When the house is lit only by fire, the sense of time having passed is suspended in the flickering flames and you are back in the eighteenth century. If you close your eyes, you can feel a rougher fabric on your skin and a contented weariness born of working the land with calloused hands, sunrise to sunset, planting to harvest, season to season.
To answer the original question, yes, in a sense the Roseberry House is haunted. The past lives on inside these walls.
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