William D. Groff Jr.

Fuel-oil company owner and Navy veteran was devoted to the preservation of Baltimore County's historical legacy

January 27, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

William Denmead Groff Jr., who owned and operated an Owings Mills fuel oil and coal business for 60 years and was interested in preserving his family's historic mill, died Jan. 19 of kidney failure at the Brightwood retirement community in Lutherville. The former longtime Owings Mills resident was 92.

Mr. Groff was born and raised in Owings Mills. He was a 1934 graduate of Franklin High School and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1938.

"While at Maryland, he played varsity lacrosse for three years. In those three years, his teams lost only one game and won two national championships," said a son, William D. Groff III of Owings Mills.

"Afterward, he coached the freshman lacrosse team at Maryland in 1939. He remained a staunch supporter of the university's football, basketball and lacrosse teams and attended games until he was 90," his son said.

During World War II, Mr. Groff enlisted in the Navy and served as a communications officer in the Atlantic and Pacific aboard the USS Dorothea L. Dix, a naval transport.

The vessel and its crew participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

In late 1944, the Dix was repositioned to the Pacific, where it transported troops to Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands, Okinawa and the Philippines. When the war ended, it transported troops from the western Pacific to the United States.

After being discharged with the rank of lieutenant in 1945, Mr. Groff returned to Owings Mills and joined W.D. Groff & Son, a seed and coal business that had been established in 1848 by three Groff brothers.

They had moved from Lancaster County, Pa., and purchased the Owings Upper Mill, a 50-foot-by-60-foot mill that was built by Samuel Owings Jr. in 1791.

"Deeds from 1793 show that Owings was assembling land and buying water rights for a large merchant mill," said John W. McGrain Jr., official Baltimore County historian and former secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose book, Grist Mills of Baltimore County, was published in 1980.

"In 1848, the mill passed out of the founding family into the hands of Francis B. Groff, Abraham E. Groff and Jacob B. Groff, whose collateral descendants still own it."

According to Mr. McGrain, they renamed it Eureka Mills and "even platted out a surrounding town to be called Eureka, which was never developed."

Benjamin F. Groff, the fourth Groff brother, came from Lancaster County and took title to the mill in 1856.

"He replaced the outside waterwheel with an underground turbine," Mr. McGrain said. "He later replaced the millstones with steel roller units in 1888."

After Benjamin Groff's death, his son Guy B. Groff operated it for a while, until his brother, William D. Groff Sr., took over in 1906 and directed the business until 1959.

The milling operation ended in 1907 when the Western Maryland Railway double-tracked its line through Owings Mills, cutting off the Gwynn Falls water supply that powered the mill's machinery.

"Then the family turned to supplying feed and fuel, and eventually William D. Groff Jr. took over and ran it through much of the late 20th century, later succeeded by his son, William D. Groff III," Mr. McGrain said.

When Mr. Groff Jr. entered the business in 1946, he added heating oil to the anthracite coal and feed it supplied to customers.

For more than 50 years, W.D. Groff & Son had been a Southern States cooperative, his son said.

"He was quite a person," Mr. McGrain said. "He had welcomed various tours to Groff Mill and the Maryland Public Television program Motor Week sometimes filmed new cars on its grounds."

Mr. Groff, realizing the historic importance of the mill, proposed getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places during the 1970s, and for that effort, enlisted the support of Mr. McGrain.

"He had some great stories about the neighborhood, and when we were preparing the National Register history documentation, we went out on Reisterstown Road and checked the accuracy of the turnpike milestones on his car's odometer - and they were set exactly right," Mr. McGrain recalled.

Groff Mill was added to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Mr. Groff, who ran the business for 60 years, sold it in 2006.

"His passion had been his business," his son said. "He also was a wealth of knowledge on the history of Owings Mills and Reisterstown."

Known as a something of a raconteur, family and friends said that Mr. Groff was always at the ready with a good story or two.

Mr. Groff was an avid tennis and badminton player and enjoyed both activities until he was in his late 60s.

He was a former governor of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland and was a member of the Society of the Ark and Dove.

Mr. Groff was also a member of the Maryland Club, the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club and the Bachelors Cotillon.

His wife of 52 years, the former Sally Tayloe Compton, died in 1998.

Mr. Groff was a longtime communicant and former vestryman of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Garrison, where services were held Saturday.

Also surviving are two other sons, T. Compton Groff of Bluffton, S.C., and T. Kent R. Groff of Phoenix, Baltimore County; a sister, Mary Rae Baldwin Groff Lemon of Towson; and four grandchildren.

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