They call him Hans.
The source of unexplained knocks, flickering lights and phantasmic piano playing is thought to be the ghost of Hans Stender, one-time proprietor of the Miller Inn. The lodge-turned-event space was built in 1892 on a hillside within the Miller Valley campus in Milwaukee.
In addition to producing millions of barrels of beer each year, it serves up its share of scares.
Hans is one of several specters that allegedly haunt parts of the Miller brewery, spirits so attached that they cannot – or will not – move on.
“It seems like anyone who has worked at the brewery for any amount of time has either heard stories or experienced something strange,” says Dan Scholzen, archivist at the Milwaukee brewery, which has been named one of the most haunted sites in the area.
Indeed, tales have been told for decades, going back to the early part of the 20th century. There have been rumors of disembodied voices tingling spines. Reports of inexplicable events like phones ringing for no reason, lights impossibly flickering, temperature unexpectedly dropping and a figure in black fleeing a security guard – then vanishing without a trace. Rumors of pianos playing by themselves and strange noises have frightened and disturbed employees for decades.
Among the most repeated stories is of a long-deceased brewery worker and his lover, who would rendezvous at the entrance of the Miller Caves, a series of cold caverns that were used to store beer for aging in the 19th century. The caves were dug out in 1850 and used until 1906; they were reopened as a museum in the 1950s.
One day, legend holds, the man didn’t show up to meet her because he’d been badly injured, perhaps losing his footing within the caves and suffering a head injury that led to his death. She soon passed, as well, of a broken heart. The lovers can sometimes be heard in the caves. Sometimes their presence can be felt, and at least one recent Miller employee saw them passionately kissing before they abruptly disappeared.
The employee “turned white as a ghost and asked to go home. She stayed away for a week,” remembers Kindra Loferski, the brewery’s guest relations manager.
Loferski has worked at the Milwaukee facility since 2004. While she hasn’t personally witnessed anything out of the ordinary, she’s worked closely with some who have reported a brush with the paranormal. There was a woman who heard a voice repeating “I will wait for you” near the entrance of the caves (“She quit the next day.”) Another witnessed music coming from an unplugged player piano.
Others have reported flickering lights, sudden temperature changes – you know, ghost stuff.
“My staff can get pretty skittish. I know there are places some people just won’t go,” she says.
Still, when your job is to work in the allegedly haunted parts of the brewery, encountering something inexplicable comes with the territory.
That’s what Kristie Holden experienced soon after she started working in the guest relations department in 2009, a job that took her to the Miller Inn and its Bavarian-style beer hall. When she and her colleagues were cleaning after an event one night, the lights started going on and off, she says. She could hear the distinct click of the light switches: “I thought it was my co-workers, joking around andtrying to be funny.”
“I walked around to the opposite side of the wall and there wasn’t anybody there. I said, ‘Come on, guys, it’s not funny.’ But everyone was in the break room,” Holden recalls.
“We all went back out to the bar area, and the lights were coming back on, and you heard the click click click, and there wasn’t anyone there,” she says. “We determined it was probably Hans running the show, and we decided to get out of there.”
Another time, Holden was downstairs in the Miller Inn when she heard music coming from a room called the High Life Room, which has an old player piano. When she went to investigate, she found the piano was playing – even though it wasn’t plugged in.
“There wasn’t a body or a being you could see, so I don’t know what that was. I don’t get scared by that stuff, but it was interesting," Holden says.
She pins the blame on Hans, who, as the story goes, acrimoniously parted ways with Miller in the 1940s, perhaps leading to his prolonged post-mortal occupancy of the Inn.
“I said, ‘OK, Hans, enough is enough,’” she says. A gentle scolding seems to deter him, Holden says: “Sometimes when you hear a noise in the Miller Inn, we’d say, ‘Hans, seriously, not right now.’”
The stories have attracted the attention of local ghost hunters like Noah Leigh of Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2007. Leigh and his team of investigators have made four trips to Miller Valley since 2015.
“Whenever you have buildings that have been around for a long time, you’re going to have stories,” says Leigh, who estimates he’s conducted more than 500 investigations over the years. For Leigh, the rumors – and the unique location – were enough to pique his interest. When the brewery invited his team to investigate, they jumped at the chance.
Armed with an Ectomobile’s worth of equipment – thermal-imaging cameras, audio recorders, electromagnetic field detectors and the like – Leigh’s team has spent several nights in the caves and the Inn trying to prove there’s something out there. Or, rather, prove the existence of something that can explain the unexplainable.
By returning multiple times and taking observant notes on their surroundings (“a fan in the southwest corridor of the Cave and water could be heard dripping from behind a wooden wall to an off-shoot part of the Cave”), the investigators try to rule out the natural before suspecting anything supernatural.
“We are looking for a normal explanation first before a paranormal explanation,” says Leigh, 40, who has multiple degrees in science and works in his day job as an epidemiologist.
In the case of the brewery, multiple investigations have been inconclusive, despite the decades of stories about spooks, specters and ghosts.
“Most of the time nothing happens in our investigations,” says Leigh. But, “For us, it’s about finding the truth, whatever the truth might be..”
Do ghosts float among us? Is the Miller brewery a hotbed of paranormal activity? Maybe it doesn’t matter. The stories have been around for generations and will be told for generations to come.
Perhaps the most important thing is that whomever dares to work within the brewery walls must put their fears behind them. After all, there’s always beer to be made.
Maybe the most important thing is we keep telling them.
Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee is holding a fundraising investigation at the haunted Brumder Mansion this weekend. Details can be found here.