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Portraits of a doctor and a druggist offer a glimpse into medicine in old St. Clair

Burt and Julia Groff in a Times Herald photo probably taken in the early 1990s. - Jim Bloch

Beer and Groff featured in ‘Ten People Who Were Important to St. Clair’

By Jim Bloch

Dozens of St. Clair residents recently got a glimpse into their pasts when a trio of women from the St. Clair Historical Museum presented “Ten People Who Were Important to St. Clair.”

“This is the third time we’ve done this,” said Bev Stewart, a member of the historical commission, who presented brief biographies of three of the 10 historical figures. The museum did similar presentations in 2017 and 2015.

More than 100 people turned for the Sept. 19 evening presentation and more than 50 showed up for the Sept. 20 afternoon presentation.

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Two of the 10 figures, Dr. Joe Beer and pharmacist Burt Groff, offer a look into the state of medicine and pharmacy in mid-20th Century St. Clair. The other featured personalities were gas station owner Don Ross, maritime artist Jim Clary, funeral parlor owners Tom and Mickey Bower, kindergarten teacher Marie Hingelberg, barber Marv Dietlin, Judge John Cummings and DPW stalwart Earl McCartney.

The old county hospital in St. Clair, where Dr. Beer delivered most of his 3,250 babies, later became St. Clair City Hall, seen here in 2000. – Jim Bloch

Dr. Joe Beer

“Dr. Joe Beer was born in Detroit on Aug. 5, 1912,” said Georgina Burns, a member of the museum. “At age 10, he saw his mother treated at home for a serious illness and that’s when he decided he would like to become a doctor. He attended Eastern High School and the University of Detroit.

“Most people don’t know that he played professional football with the Detroit Indians a year before they became the Lions. He played against the great Red Grange who played for the Chicago Bears.

‘They murdered us,’ Beer said.

“He got his medical degree from Wayne State,” said Burns. “He served in the Air Force 1942-1946 with the legendary Flying Tigers.

“After the war, he decided he wanted to be a small-town doctor. His nurse, Marlene Gramzow, was ironically one of his first patients … an appendectomy.

“He possibly set a medical record when he delivered three sets of twins in 40 hours at the old community hospital.”

Over his years in St. Clair, he delivered 3,250 babies — an astounding figure considering that the mid-century population of the city was the same number.

He and his wife had two children, Joe and Jo Ann.

Gramzow recalled the doctor’s temper and said she had to replace a number of telephones after Beer slammed down their receivers.

“A friend of a family member who was a patron of Burkart’s Bar told of a dust-up when a man was pushed through a window and cut his head,” Burns said. “Doc Beer was called to stitch him up. He was so angry about being called out late at night that he didn’t freeze the cut.

The former county hospital and former city hall was demolished in 2001. – Jim Bloch

‘You’re numb enough,’ Beer told the man.

“He could swear like a sailor,” Burns said. “But he never left the office at the end of the day without thanking his office nurse and staff.

“Beer was a member of the Knights of Columbus, the St. Clair County Medical Society, American Medical Society and a fellow of the International College of Surgeons.

After he retired to Port Sanilac, Beer and Robert Holden sailed a 38 foot sailboat from the West Coast to Hawaii, making the 2,225 mile trip in 20 days.

He died in 1996 at the age of 83.

Burt Groff

“Burt Groff was born on Dec. 3, 1900 in Lake Odessa, Michigan, to John and Margaret Groff,” said Burns. “The Groffs lived on a farm and though they often had two farmhands, the Groff boys worked pretty darn hard. Burt had an older brother and younger sister.

“When Burt was in high school, his father developed heart problems and the family moved into town. His parents died within two months of each other when he was a senior in high school. Sports were a great outlet for him, especially football and baseball.

“He worked a couple different jobs while in school.”

“Around 1921, somehow the Groff children were swindled out of the family farm,” said Burns. “Burt got the small family house in town and his siblings got small cash settlements.”

Burt sold the house and took out loans to attend pharmacy school at the University of Michigan, where he also worked part time jobs. After graduation, he worked six months for a pharmacist in Ypsilanti. He met Julia Baker at a bridge game in Detroit and couple were married in 1935. They had two sons, Bob and Dick. The newlyweds were attracted to small town life and Burt bought Perkins Drugs in St. Clair.

St. Clair had two drugstores and they were side by side in the old downtown, Groff’s right next to Figley’s Drugs, later Erickson’s.

Burt joined St. Clair Golf Club in 1945, coughing up $67 in annual dues. An avid golfer, Burt hit his first hole in one in Marysville in 1981 and another in St. Clair when he was 95.

“He was a wonderful person to work for,” said Burns. “Many high school girls worked for him, including me. He never spoke harshly to his employees, said one former staff, although he did once say, ‘You’re making those cones too big, aren’t you?’

“Sometimes he had us run a prescription to a person’s house in the evening. That kind of personal service just isn’t seen anymore.

“He and Julia used to entertain their bridge club and he would have us bag up some warm deluxe nuts for their evening.”

He sold the store to his son Bob in 1965.

Groff died in 2005, a few days shy of his 105th birthday.

Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at

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