NEWMARKET — The live music club where a sign out front still directs “hippies (to) use the front door,” is 50 years old.
The Stone Church on Granite Street was started in 1970 by three young men who thought the burned-out Newmarket Heel Company — which began life as a Universalist Meeting House in 1832 — would make a good coffee house.
Over the years, it was a place where people enjoyed a beer (sometimes their first) while acts like Phish, the Jerry Garcia Band, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne and the late local folk singer Bill Morrissey performed.
“The town wasn’t all that accepting of the Stone Church in its first few years,” owner Mike Hoffman told the Union Leader earlier this spring. “But now, you could be on a plane and turn to a passenger and say ‘Newmarket,’ and they will say, ‘Is that where the Stone Church is?’”
People have come from all over New England to see shows in the 185-seat venue. Hoffman and his wife, Cheryl, are the current custodians of the music club, which, before the pandemic hit, had 16 employees. Hoffman had been working with former owners to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary in 2020, but social-distancing mandates put a kink into plans.
Paul LeBrun, who says he owned the Stone Church from 1993 to 2003, knows the profound impact the music venue has had on people’s lives.
“What happens in your 20s stays with you. It makes an impression on you. When you are old and gray, you look back on the fun times,” LeBrun said.
John Williamson, Rod Philbrick and Arnie Taylor were the original trio who opened the Stone Church. Williamson said they borrowed $500 from someone’s aunt to get started.
Williamson said when the club had its first opening night in November 1970, the place was packed, but things really took off when they started a weekly roast beef dinner.
“Our big claim to fame at the time in the early ‘70s was the Sunday Hoot. It started right after noon and would go till midnight. It was these big, roast beef dinners, pre-vegan era, and for $2.50 you could have all-you-could-eat roast beef, and if you were a musician, you ate and drank for free and you played,” Taylor said.
Some of the friendships he developed at The Stone Church have lasted for the full half-century of the club’s existence.
Alan Smith, who bought Philbrick’s share of the business in 1972, is known for being a local boy just out of the service when he tried to block an attempt to “chase the hippies off the hill.”
Smith explains that he was a former Marine who had been stationed at the U.S. Naval Prison on the grounds of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. But he’s not forthcoming with the details: He says he would have to check the statute of limitations on some of the stories he could share from that time period.
“I don’t think I could ever recreate it, but it was really enjoyable, and at that time of my life I was in my early 20s and experimenting with all kinds of things,” Smith said.