Resurrecting the Beer King

Dan Linehan

, Below The Fold

The 19th-century statue was an icon of Delaware’s brewing history, and John Medkeff is determined to restore it

When the 11-foot statue of King Gambrinus began its 80-year watch atop Wilmington’s Diamond State Brewery in 1882, it was raising a goblet to the German immigrants who were turning brewing into an industry.

The immigrants brought lager brewing techniques to America, and their traditions, including King Gambrinus, came along, too. The mythical figure, typically bearded and cast in zinc, appeared on breweries across the country.

Then, in 1920, the 18th Amendment and Prohibition effectively ended Delaware’s golden age of brewing. Even after the misbegotten law was repealed in 1933, the local industry failed to thrive amid consolidation into a handful of major players.

Facing stiff competition from regional breweries, Diamond State closed in 1955. The one-two punch of Prohibition and consolidation, not to mention national brands like Budweiser and Coors, totally knocked brewing out of Delaware between 1955 and 1995.

King Gambrinus came on hard times, too, after Diamond State Brewery was demolished in 1962 to make room for Interstate 95. The statue was shuffled around to a few locations, and spent a decade at the former King’s Inn restaurant on Naamans Road north of Wilmington, the current location of Harry’s Savoy Grill.

Then, in 1978, as a buyer attempted to move it, it was dropped and shattered into more than 60 pieces. The weak point appears to have been a hook on the statue that couldn’t bear the 1,000-pound load.

Craft Beer to the Rescue

But the king may rise again. After the industry—in the form of craft beer—rebounded in Delaware and nationally, it seemed appropriate to pay homage to those who first brought beer here, says John Medkeff, Jr., a 54-year-old Wilmingtonian.

A native Delawarean and marketer by trade, Medkeff was driven to home brewing in the 1980s, he says, simply because he was disgusted by the poor quality of store-bought beer. He learned brewing from his family.

Medkeff published a book, Brewing in Delaware, in 2015, and is spearheading an effort to raise $100,000 to put the statue back together.

“It’s a perfect symbol of Delaware’s brewing industry, and of its revival,” says Medkeff. He’s hoping Delaware’s thriving craft beer industry—19 breweries, at last count—will contribute toward the project. 

He has formed a nonprofit, The Friends of Delaware’s Gambrinus Statue, Inc., to lead the “Restore the King” fundraising effort. The group has received estimates of approximately $100,000 to complete the statue’s restoration. What’s more, the Delaware Historical Society has agreed to exhibit the statue in its Market Street museum once it is repaired.

Whether a King Gambrinus ever existed may be lost to history. As for the myth that remains, Medkeff says, think of him as the Santa Claus of beer.

Medkeff’s research reveals that the first reference to Gambrinus may have come in the year 98 A.D., when the Roman historian Tacitus identified a German tribe called the “Gambrivii.” The beer king himself was likely an invention of later writers.

As the German people struggled with disunification, Gambrinus became a cultural touchstone for a shared heritage. The tradition was brought to America, and foundries actually advertised Gambrinus statues in beer trade journals. The statues tended to be made of zinc, a metal whose chief virtue was its low cost. Few of the figures remain; Medkeff knows of only four others that exist in North America today. The nearest statue is on display in Baltimore, while the others are in Breinigsville, Pa., Syracuse, N.Y., and Toluca, in central Mexico.

The beer kings who sprouted above breweries became symbols of German culture, but for modern audiences they have taken on new meanings. Delaware’s statue represents in part the social, cultural and industrial history of immigration in the late 19th century, says Scott W. Loehr, CEO of the Delaware Historical Society.

When Brewing Was Women’s Work

One modern Delaware brewer sees positive elements in that past, especially the connection between brewing and its local community.

Craig Wensell, founder of Wilmington-based Bellefonte Brewing Company, says restoring the statue is an important way to hold onto history. He sees something else in Gambrinus’ bushy beard: a re-branding of brewing as man’s work instead of a feminine job.

For the thousands of years before brewing became big business, it was typically the province of women, Wensell says. The industrialization of beer led men to claim it as their own, which required a rebranding campaign.

“The iconography of King Gambrinus really is an attempt by the masculine side of the culture to requisition brewing as something males did instead of females,” he says.

Wensell also says Gambrinus represented a connection to the community. When the statue was erected, he says, beer was a local product, made and consumed by local people. The advent of refrigeration and transportation changed this, and during Delaware’s four-decade brewery drought, that connection was severed.

Local craft brewers, Wensell says, are restoring that connection. They enjoy helping to lend an identity to the places where they operate, and their customers return that affection.

The statue’s own return trip was sparked by a pivotal encounter.

Picking up the Pieces

In 2014, Medkeff was researching his book on Delaware brewing history when he visited an estate sale for Robert Howard, a curator at the Hagley Museum and Library who owned the broken statue when he died.

At the sale, a lawyer approached Medkeff and asked if he knew anyone who might want the statue’s remains. And that’s how he ended up with the pieces, which may otherwise have been lost to a landfill.

The fundraising effort has only just begun with a few small events, and Medkeff says the nonprofit may expand to other parts of brewing history, perhaps with historic markers and memorials. The Friends group is planning a living history tour and Victorian picnic (with beer, of course) next spring to help raise money.

For now, though, they’re focused on raising the hundred grand —a rough target at this point—to weld the statue back together. Some pieces, however, are missing. To replace them, restorers will scan another of the statues cast from the same mold and fabricate the missing pieces.

Once finished, Wilmington’s Gambrinus will be painted to match its original colors and planted atop a base in the Market Street museum. Because it will be reinforced by an internal skeleton—the first version was largely hollow—it will be sturdier than before.

Of course, it would be much cheaper to simply cast an all-new statue, but ultimately less authentic and resonant, says Loehr. “It’s that connection to the real thing, to the stuff of history,” he says. “I think that’s what moves people.”

To learn about the statue, its history and the campaign to Restore the King, visit restoretheking.com.

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