After a fire destroyed Wilmington, Delaware’s Diamond State Brewery in 1881, proprietor Joseph Stoeckle had a larger brick facility constructed the following year at the same location on Fifth and Adams streets. Stoeckle elected to adorn his new brewery with a large statue of Gambrinus, the European “King of Beer.”
The 11 ½-foot zinc statue was purchased from the M.(ichael) Gebelt & Brothers Company of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, as indicated on the plaque at statue’s right base. Gambrinus was cast from a mold owned by the J.W. Fiske & Company, a prominent Manhattan manufacturer of iron and zinc statuary. Fiske typically outsourced their foundry work to local firms. In fact, identical examples of the Fiske Gambrinus statue were made not only by Gebelt, but at least two other Williamsburg foundries – Joseph A. Stoll and M.J. Seelig & Company. Although Fiske brought suit against Gebelt in 1876 for duplicating some of his company’s statue designs without authorization, it did not stop the two companies from doing future business together.
The Fiske Gambrinus statue designs were originally sold in two sizes: a 3 ½-foot version (Fiske catalogue No. 401) and a larger, 10-foot, 3-inch model (No. 402). The statues could be purchased with either a single primer coat of paint or, for an additional charge, polychromatic paint. The Stoeckle statue was the No. 402 version, which is believed to have been among the largest zinc trade statues made in America during the 19th century.
Stoeckle’s colorful Gambrinus statue remained in its alcove atop the Diamond State Brewery for more than 80 years, through the Prohibition era and two World Wars. Perched on what was then one of Wilmington’s tallest structures in one of the city’s highest points, the beloved king toasted the thirsty workers in ship and rail yards along the Christina River and beckoned them to partake when the workday ended.
The Diamond State Brewery, Inc., successors to the Joseph Stoeckle Brewing Co., went bankrupt in 1955 and the brewery closed permanently. In the ensuing years, the complex fell into disrepair and was eventually purchased by Cohen Brothers Furniture, who used part of it as a storage warehouse. Time took its toll on Gambrinus as well and, in May 1956, the statue’s extended right arm and tankard gave way, fell 33 feet to the sidewalk, and shattered. The worst was yet to come. Unfortunately, the brewery stood directly in the path of the planned Adams-Jackson Freeway (i.e. – Interstate 95) through Wilmington and was set to be demolished in late 1962.
Prior to demolition, on September 26, 1962, Joseph Cohen had Gambrinus removed from the brewery and temporarily placed in the window of his furniture store at 511 Madison Street, a couple of blocks from the brewery site. Cohen initially discussed plans to have the statue restored and donated to a local museum but those plans never came to fruition. Instead, he sold the statue to Wilmington restaurateur Francis Corridori in 1963.
Corridori had Gambrinus repaired, adding a new extended right arm and goblet, and placed the statue in front of his King’s Inn Restaurant at 2020 Naamans Road in suburban Wilmington. The statue toasted passerbys until the business closed in 1972.
Ownership of the statue passed to Corridori’s son, Tom, who stored it at an Airport Road roofing company warehouse near Newport for several years until that business was sold. In July 1978, the statue was moved to temporary storage at a salvage yard down the road. A Pennsylvania antique dealer offered to purchase the statue in August 1978. Unfortunately, while being moved at the salvage yard, the statue was inadvertently dropped and shattered into dozens of pieces. The purchaser paid a reduced price for the statue and removed it.
Some point thereafter, Robert Howard of Wilmington came into possession of the statue. Howard intended to restore Gambrinus, but never got around to doing it before his death in 2012. Howard’s estate granted ownership of the statue to John Medkeff Jr. of Newark in July 2014.
The remaining pieces of the Gambrinus statue are currently in safe storage awaiting restoration. Once funds are raised and work is completed, the statue will be donated to the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington for long-term presentation and preservation.
Gambrinus is the most significant artifact remaining from Wilmington’s golden age of brewing. The statue serves as an apt symbol for the revival of that piece of lost history and the rebirth of brewing in the First State.