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If these walls could talk


Sandusky, Ohio - When you first approach it, there's nothing especially remarkable about the one-story white concrete building with the black-lettered sign "Animal Hospital" over the entrance.

SANDUSKY, OHIO — When you first approach it, there's nothing especially remarkable about the one-story white concrete building with the black-lettered sign "Animal Hospital" over the entrance.

75-year history: Dr. Michæl E. Metroka has practiced in this Sandusky, Ohio, building 22 years, the third DVM to conduct business in the same structure since 1932. Before that, the building was an apartment building garage, and rum runners used it as a hideout during Prohibition days.

But the simple block structure that came with the practice Dr. Michael E. Metroka bought in 1986 to launch his veterinary career in this city of 26,000 — 60 miles west of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie — brought with it quite a history and tales to tell.

He can't prove it, but Metroka, 48, says there are reasons to believe the practice he acquired might well be the oldest in the nation that has operated continuously "within the same walls," as he puts it.

He arranged an open house Feb. 2, commemorating the hospital's 75th anniversary, with Margaret Amerine, 88-year-old widow of the former owner, Dr. Ivan Amerine, as the guest of honor. Dr. Amerine, a popular Erie County DVM honored in 1981 for his years of service to the county fair, died in 2004.

Amerine practiced in the building 39 years, from 1947 to 1986. The original owner, Dr. Hollis Grey, started the practice in 1932.

The building is located on tree-lined Columbus Avenue, one of Sandusky's oldest streets, marked by several houses more than a century old. The animal hospital is directly behind a tall, 2,800-square-foot house built about 1870, which came with the tract of land that Metroka acquired with the business in 1986. The house is said to be the second oldest on the street; Metroka rents it to a tenant, but his predecessors lived there.

"In the old days, during the 1930s, 1940s and even into the 1950s, when this area was still mostly rural, the practice was almost 100 percent large-animal," Metroka says. "In the mid- to late-1950s and 1960s, dogs and cats started to become more a part of the picture, and by 1986 when I took over it was about 90 percent small-animal. I tried to maintain about a 10 percent large-animal practice in my first three years, but then the small-animal business just took off."

In bygone days: Dr. Ivan Amerine, who practiced in the Sandusky location 39 years before selling to Metroka, in front of the building in the early 1960s.

Why does Metroka believe the practice is the oldest, or one of the oldest, in the nation operating continuously within the same walls, or basic structure, even though the facilities have been updated?

"During the years of World War II, many veterinarians were recruited for the war effort, interrupting their practices, and many then moved after the war. But Dr. Grey had a medical exemption during the war and continued to practice here in those years."

Grey was a graduate of The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine, the nation's oldest veterinary school. (Dr. Amerine was an OSU grad, and Metroka graduated from OSU in 1985.)

Also, pharmaceutical sales representatives who cover large territories have told Metroka they aren't aware of any practices in continuous operation longer than his.

"This building even has a bit of what some might call 'sordid history,' in the days before Dr. Grey," Metroka says.

Busy practice: Dr. Michæl E. Metroka with a patient: "I've never had a slow day."

"It was built in the early 1900s as a garage for some upscale apartment buildings," he explains.

Sandusky, home of Cedar Point, one of the nation's largest amusement parks, has been a summer-resort community dating back more than a century. "During Prohibition," Metroka explains, "rum runners out of Canada would come into Sandusky Bay, load their trucks and use this garage to hide out for a few days before hauling their product away (east to Cleveland or west to Toledo). The rum runners used this place through most of the Prohibition years (1920-1933) before Dr. Grey owned it, as I understand it."

A replica of the type of boat the rum runners used sits in Metroka's office, and he enjoys telling the story when anyone asks about it.

The practitioner says he sees about 20 to 40 patients a day and performs a wide variety of services, including surgeries. He sends some of his most difficult cases to Medvet Medical Center for Pets in Columbus, and some overnight emergency cases are referred to an emergency center in nearby Lorain, Ohio. He and two other Sandusky DVMs are on call for each other every third week to cover days off and late evenings.

"With all the services I offer here, and considering my referral specialists an extension of the practice, I feel I'm a full-service veterinarian," Metroka says. "I've had to reinvent my wheel, my business model, perhaps four or five times over the years because of the Internet and some services that gradually eroded away from nearly all vets. I once did about 1,000 elective surgeries a year; that's down to about 200 now, but can say I've never had a slow day in all my 22 years here."

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