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Friday, April 4, 2014

Yet Another Spring Hill Brewery Update

Spring Hill Brewery (courtesy John Medkeff, Jr.)
Almost a year and a half ago I wrote the first post about the Spring Hill Brewery, which was located on the north side of Barley Mill Road, just east of Barley Mill's crossing of Red Clay Creek. For a full refresher I suggest going back to review the original post, but the short story is that it was a brewery run by the Biedermann family for about 30 years, from 1881 until the early 1910's. I was able to piece together a good part of the Spring Hill story, but a few holes still remained.

Since I never consider any topic ever "Closed", the discovery of a few more pieces of information prompted the first follow-up post several months later. Most of this post covered the August 1909 explosion at the Wooddale Quarry, which I thought had marked the end of the Spring Hill Brewery. Also included were bits of aerial photos from the 1930's that I speculated might be of the Biedermann property, or what was left of it by then. Still, though, there were three main questions that were not sufficiently answered, at least in my eyes. When did the brewery truly cease operation (and why)? Where exactly was it? And what did it look like? I'm very happy to say, that with a huge assist from a new friend and fantastic resource, I think I have pretty good answers to all these lingering questions.

A couple months back you may have noticed that there was a comment on the brewery post from a man named John Medkeff. John is a Delaware beer historian, and has done years of research on the 300+ year history of brewing in the state. He runs a FaceBook Group on the subject, has his own website (still under construction, but already looking great), and is working on a book due out next year (2015). Turns out he was thrilled to find that someone else had heard of Spring Hill, a topic he himself had done a fair bit of digging into. I contacted him and he was gracious enough to share with us some of what he's found. John also arranged for us to explore the property where the brewery was located, but more on that in a moment.

July 9, 1911

The first thing John told me seems likely to be the answer to the first of our queries: When and why did the brewery finally close? I had speculated that the 1909 explosion was the ultimate demise of the brewery, partly because I could find no record of it any later than that. I just hadn't looked in the right place yet. As it so happens, Herman Biedermann did in fact rebuild Spring Hill after the disastrous explosion of 1909. Unfortunately for him, though, misfortune did not stay away long. As the article above states, a fire in early July 1911 destroyed the brewery and did some damage to the house as well. Even though it's a little difficult to get a sense of depth and distance in the top picture, you can see that the whole complex (brewery and residence) was pretty compact. According to John's research, this 1911 fire does seem to have been the end of Spring Hill's operational life.

As to the second question -- the exact location of the brewery -- John and I may have found the answer during a recent "recon" mission to the area. The old Biedermann property is now owned by the Mt. Cuba Center, and through a contact he has there John was able to get us permission to walk around the site and take a look. We went out on a soggy Saturday morning (although the rain let up for most of our walk) to see if we could find any evidence of the location of the house or brewery. We ended up finding two locations where something definitely once stood.

Likely remains of Spring Hill, 1933

The first site was a couple hundred yards north of Barley Mill Road, and consisted of a few ground-level stone foundations. They weren't much to look at, but they were certainly the remains of something. As hard as we tried to match up the site to the picture, nothing really jumped out at us as being definitive proof that this was the spot. After poking around that location for a bit we made our way back to the road, and while on our way back stumbled upon another site.

In addition to some stone foundations of something, we found a stone-lined well and several small pieces of what had to have been walls. Nothing very impressive in their own right, but significantly more than the first site. After looking at the site as a whole and consulting the old maps and aerial photos (links to the two pictures here and here), I'm convinced that this second location -- not far from the road -- is where the Biedermann's home and brewery once stood.

George J. Biedermann  (courtesy John Medkeff, Jr.)

The final lingering question (in this list, at least), what did Spring Hill Brewery look like, is obviously answered by the picture at the top of the page. It's a pretty significant photograph, and one we should all thank John for tracking down from a descendant of the Biedermanns. As I figured and John confirmed, Spring Hill was the only commercial brewery in the county located outside of Wilmington, at least until the 1990's. This picture is the only one we know of showing the brewery. And as a bonus, John also found a photograph of George J. Biedermann (1866-1905), the second operator of the brewery. The Biedermanns' family history is an interesting one, very entwined with the close-knit German community of the time. For the full story, be sure to keep an eye out for John's book next year. I know I will. In the mean time, if any more information comes to light I'll be sure to add it to the story.

1 comment:

  1. Scott, thanks for agreeing to go along with me and Dave on the site visit to Spring Hill Brewery. Fantastic write up.

    Perhaps more could be found about the Biederman property from old deeds. A visit to the Recorder of Deeds is in order.