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Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Spring Hill Brewery

Red dot marks location of the Spring Hill Brewery
With all of the variety of industries and manufactories that have operated in Mill Creek Hundred over the past 300 years, there is one type that breaks my heart to say (as far as I know) has never been present -- a brewery. (And no, the Mr. Beer in your basement doesn't count.) Luckily, though, if you were around 120 years ago, there was one literally a stones throw away in Christiana Hundred. I've heard stories -- mostly not far above urban legend level -- of the existence of a 19th Century brewery for a while now, but I had never been able to find any more information about it. Then, the other day, while looking for something completely unrelated, I stumbled across a reference to it that contained the name of the brewery and the man who ran it. Yea for serendipity!!

All I really knew about the brewery before was that it was located on the other (east) side of Red Clay Creek somewhere near the Wooddale Quarry. The quarry is located just north of the former Delaware Iron Works, along the Wilmington & Western Railroad tracks. It was used by the B&O (of which the Wilmington & Western was then a part) as a source for ballast stone (the stones lying under and around the tracks). The quarry was last used in 1932 to aid in construction of the nearby Hoopes Reservoir dam. Today, the site of the quarry is easily visible from the railroad, with the 175 foot sheer-face back wall providing an impressive backdrop for the house now located where Italian immigrants once toiled. Stating the brewery's location in relation to the iron works and the quarry is not an arbitrary choice -- they were in large part the reason for its existance. Or, more precisely, their workers were the reason. 

The Spring Hill Brewery was the creation of German immigrant F. Herman Biederman*, who came to the United States in 1854. He originally settled in Chesapeake City, MD, where he worked on a farm for five years. In 1859, Biederman moved to Chester County, PA, where he stayed for another three years. Finally, in 1862, he settled on a small tract of land on the western edge of Christiana Hundred, right next to where Barley Mill Road crosses Red Clay Creek. He moved to the Wooddale area to work at the Delaware Iron Works, where he was employed for 21 years. Sometime during that period, probably in the late 1860's, Biederman built a brewery on his property at a cost of $2000. And unlike when we usually say someone "built" something (meaning they had it built for them), it appears that Herman Biederman actually did build his brewery himself.

Herman Biederman on the 1881 Hopkins map

The Altenburg, Saxony native was much more than just a farm laborer or iron mill worker -- he was something of a mechanical and woodworking genius. He excelled at creating iron and wooden mechanical devices and toys, and built both his actual brewery and the machinery within himself. In a newspaper column marking his 85th birthday in 1918*, there is mention of a mechanical toy he built that was displayed for a time in Wilmington:
Many Delawareans will remember that he fashioned, with nothing but a penknife, a huge mechanical toy about 25 feet long by 15 feet deep, every part of which was operated by water power. This toy was exhibited in this city at one time as a rare curiosity.
Biederman operated his self-built brewery for about twenty years, until turning it over to his son, George F. Biederman (1866-1905). Frustratingly, there is almost no mention whatsoever of the Spring Hill Brewery in the historical record. Among the things basically not explained is how or where Spring Hill sold its product. In his Hockessin: A Pictorial History, Joseph Lake notes that a particular saloon in that village "sold a draft beer produced by a small brewery in Mt. Cuba". I think he's probably referring here to Spring Hill. I haven't found any indications that Biederman ran his own saloon (which city breweries often did), so he may have sold directly or distributed to local taverns, like the one in Hockessin. My hope is that someday someone with a Spring Hill Brewery bottle (if they exist) will come across this post and send me a picture. [I've since been told that Spring Hill bottles do occasionally surface with collectors, but are rare.]

And where, as far as we know, Herman was a self taught brewer, his son George did actually study the craft and worked elsewhere in the trade before taking over for his father. Runks states that the younger Biederman worked at Sprank's brewery in Wilmington (I could not find anything on this), as well as at breweries in Chester, PA and Gloucester, NJ. In 1888 he bought Spring Hill from his father and began running it himself. Herman's wife Mary died of double pneumonia on December 31 of that year, so perhaps maybe she had been sick before that, and he retired to spend more time with her. After retiring, Herman remained in the same location, and from what little we know about him, I'm sure he managed to keep himself busy.

George Biederman is listed as a brewer in the 1900 Census, so he likely operated Spring Hill until his own death in 1905. At that point, the brewery passed to his younger brother, Herman. While there seems to be no explicitly stated date for the closing of the Spring Hill Brewery, one explosive detail (you’ll get that in a moment) does give a tantalizing clue. On August 8, 1909, in the Wooddale quarry only 500 feet away, an Italian quarryman was killed in a large accidental explosion. The brewery, bottling house, stables, and outbuildings were knocked from their foundations by the blast. Biederman’s house was “damaged beyond repair”.

Herman Biederman planned to sue the Baltimore company that owned the quarry, if they did not repair his property. And although he is still listed as a brewer in the 1910 Census, that August blast of 150 pounds of dynamite may very well have been the end of the Spring Hill Brewery. Until I can find evidence otherwise, my guess is that he was unsuccessful in getting the quarry company to pay, and the brewery buildings were never repaired. We do know (as seen earlier in the newspaper birthday article) that by 1918 the Biedermans had moved to a farm in Hockessin, called Wyndmore Farm. The elder Herman is not included in the 1920 Census, so it appears he died sometime between September 1918 and February 1920, when the census was conducted in that area. The younger Herman, as well as his son Harvey and family, are both still listed as farmers in Hockessin in 1940.

This is one topic I'd really like to be able to find out more about, and not just because it deals with beer (ok, yes, mostly because it deals with beer). Although the Biedermans were long gone by then, the 1937 aerial photos seems to show structures still standing next to Barley Mill Road and Red Clay Creek. They're difficult to make out, so it's not possible to determine whether any of them are the brewery. There were at least two homes on the property, the original one built by Herman and one erected by George. Someday I hope to wander back into the woods and see if any traces remain of the closest brewery to Mill Creek Hundred.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Here again we have a case of a name with multiple spelling variations. I'd imagine that "Biedermann" is the original German spelling, but the family seems to have dropped the second "n" at some point (I have several similar instances in my own family). This is the variation I'm using. In various places it's also spelled "Beiderman", "Beidermann", or "Biderman".
  • Another name confusion issue. If you click on the link to the newspaper column about Biederman's birthday, you'll notice that he's called "Henry S. Biederman". At this point, I have no idea why. There's no question who they're talking about, and his name was F. (almost certainly Frederick) Herman. It's conceivable that maybe he went by Henry, but my guess would be that the columnist just got the name wrong.


  1. Scott, I took a short hike through the area that once was home to the Spring Hill Brewery. I couldn't readily detect any ruins, I think mainly due to the underbrush and the amount of leaves on the ground. There is an overgrown road that meanders through the property. The present owner is the Mt. Cuba Center and they generally do very thorough property research on the lands that they purchase.
    A few years ago they bought land off Barley Mill road that contained the house built by Thomas Springer in 1855, my wife's ggg-grandfather. He is the T. Springer on 1868 map. Unfortunatly they tore down the house, but the ruins are still visible. The Mt. Cuba Center had the history on file and was glad it share it with me.
    If family traits go back that far, I'm sure that old Tom knocked off a few warm ones with the Biedermans at Spring Hill.

    1. Thanks for searching. I wouldn't expect there to be much at all still there, although a few foundation ruins wouldn't be out of the question. The ideal time to look would probably be a nice, warm day in January or February after more of the leaves and undergrowth is gone.

      That's cool about the Springer property. I'll have to go take a look sometime. One day soon I'll dig deeper into the family. I think because they're one of those old, big families, I've been a little intimidated. There are several old Springer houses still around, so if I keep a tight focus it should be interesting.

  2. Off topic - is there any chance you are working on a post about the Coffee Run Catholic Church in Mill Creek area? I didn't see any reference to it in your archives. There is a record plan going through the state and county process right now after 8 years of contentious Historic protection violations by the owners.
    It is on record as the old Mundy farm.


    1. I found your 3 posts about the property via google! Thank goodness for this blog. The news stories are no longer available on either the Community Pub or News Journal.

    2. It's funny you should mention Coffe Run. Recently, while researching the Polly Drummond post, I came across Fr. Patrick Kenney's diary, as well as some more info about the church. The post we did way back when was sort of an overview, and I think there's more to go back and fill in, detail-wise. Definitely something on my short list.

      If there's anything you have, or that's online about what's happening with the process, I'd love to see it. I know you're pretty plugged in to this sort of thing. I've always thought the Coffee Run site has been overlooked in its importance, even by the Catholic Church. It broke my heart when the house burned down.

  3. Scott, I'm a Delaware brewery historian and have done research on the Biederman's and their Spring Hill Brewery. A distant relative has supplied me with info on the brewery and photos of the Biederman's. They claim to have a photo of the brewery but I'm still waiting for them to send it.

    Herman Biederman did indeed rebuild the Spring Hill Brewery after it was rocked from its foundations by the quarry explosion. Unfortunately, the brewery then burned to the ground in the first week of July 1911. Herman decided to give up the business and tend to his dairy farm along Yorklyn-Kaolin Rd. (I have photos of the farm.) His son and grandson took over the farm when Herman retired in 1955. He passed away in April 1960. I have photos of George and Herman, the latter of which I posted to my Delaware's Brewing History Facebook page.

    Please contact me at delawarebeer@comcast.net if you would like a photo of a George Biederman bottle.

    John Medkeff