a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Remembering the first couple of Harley-Davidson, Ernest and Oliva Cerini

There was nothing more fascinating than having a river beyond the front porch while we were growing up in America’s industrial heartland.

Ours was the Monongahela, where, during the 1960’s, a steady stream of powerful towboats pushed barge after barge filled with coal to power plants and steel mills.

Hugging both banks in Webster and Donora, Pa., were rails that carried trains hauling iron ore pellets to a coking plant or more coal from the mines to unknown destinations.

But nothing was more thrilling than seeing an older couple cross the Donora-Webster Bridge into Webster nearly every Sunday afternoon on their Harley-Davidson motorcycle attached to a sidecar. At every opportunity, we rushed there at the same time to witness the spectacle with wide-eyed wonderment.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the man and woman were Ernest and Oliva Cerini, Italian immigrants who established what went on to become Pennsylvania’s oldest Harley-Davidson dealership in Donora. The Cerinis went everywhere on that cycle because they never owned a car, as they were extremely loyal to the Harley-Davidson name. He went as far as to tell non-Harley owners to park their rides across the street from his shop at 1507 Meldon Ave.

The business dating to 1920 passed to a son, August “Babe” Cerini, and then to the third generation while the motorcycle brand went from something for renegades to a favorite of yuppies who pretend to be bad boys on weekends.

All the while, the Cerini name became a brand in the Harley industry almost as popular as fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are to the National Football League.

That’s why bikers are stunned by the news that the family decided to sell out to its competition, Triple S Harley-Davidson Buell in Morgantown, W. Va., a deal that is expected to be finalize this week.

“Everywhere I go, they ask me what happened,” said Jim Cerini, a cousin to the Cerini brothers, Eric and Ernie, who ran the Rostraver Township and Uniontown dealerships, respectively. He can only speculate.

The brothers haven’t said a word in public about their decision to move on, paving way for a flood of rumors about the split to spring up as fast as a noisy Harley on the open road.

"It wasn't just a business. Every rider felt they were part of the place," Jim Cerini told the Observer-Reporter two weeks ago.

He purchased the old shop in Donora two years ago, and plans to turn it into a museum. It’s a lofty goal because the place needs a lot of work, and the rundown Donora isn’t exactly a tourism destination.

Although the building at one time was so important to Harley-Davidson that it wanted to dismantle and relocate its facade to the corporate museum in Milwaukee. The family declined the offer.

"That's how much it meant to us," Jim Cerini said.

So we are left with our memories of that shop at the north end of Donora. And Harley-Davidson has a fading photograph of the Cernini shop at its museum, one showing local police officers on their motorcycles outside the two-story brick building.

(Captions: Ernest and Oliva Cerini on their Harley-Davidson, top, circa 1925, and their dealership in an undated photo when local police purchased cycles in Donora. Photos courtesy of Jim Cerini)


Greece pics said...

Great blog. I love Harleys

Bob Hodgkins said...

this is so weird. we found a picture of the store with the motorcycles in the back of a picture frame. A friend of ours who happen to know the store identified it for us. We looked up ernest cirini and found the exact picture on this site. It is a pretty old photograph and we didn't know if it was worth something. We'll do more investigating

Scott Beveridge said...

The photo of the bikes in front of the store has been widely circulated. It's on T-Shirts from coast to coast.

Anonymous said...

I have this same photo and was wondering how old it is? Ifsomebody could tell me thanks.

Scott Beveridge said...

I'd guess the photo was taken circa 1920.

Anonymous said...

From what I remember being told . I'm not quite certain of the year of the photo however each respective motorcycle with their sidecars were from four local Police Departments with a police officer or a police chief being the operators of the motorcycles. one from each of the following local cities on the Momongahela River. The first being from the City of Monongahela,The City of Donora, The City of Monessen and finally The City Of Charleroi. I'm not certain of the order in which they were placed. Bruce Manko

Anonymous said...


Scott Beveridge said...

Sorry anonymous. Cerini images have been bootlegged in large numbers.

Tom Seaman said...

I remember the photo and the shop. I bought my first Harley during the summer of 1956 when I was 15. Went to the shop every Saturday and paid $5.00 on account. In September when it was paid for I picked up my used 1950 125 and thought I was King. At Xmas I traded it in for a used 1947 FL with a tank shift. Fond memories of the Cerini family. I still ride today at 73, a pround owner of a 2012 Ultra Limited.

Anonymous said...

Can someone identify the police services or local police in these photos - not the policemen but the service they work for?

Scott Beveridge said...

If I am remembering correctly, I believe there are police officers in the photo from Donora and the surrounding communities of Charleroi, Monongahela and Monessen.

Fred Evans said...

I have the T-Shirt I bought at the Dealership. On the shirt, it says, "1926." I had the privilege of being on "Babe" Cerini's last ride. I have photos somewhere out in my garage and hope to find them.

Anonymous said...

I remember in the late 60's Jamie Cerini picked me up at the pittsburgh airport on a Harley we had to put my suitcase between us.His family still owned it at that time his parents lived next to my grandparents for years. I was staying at their home when his wonderful mother passed away. I think Jamie was a great guy i had a lot of fun when i was a young girl and used to visit from Florida. Kathy Craig Slaton

Unknown said...

I currently live across the street from the dealership today. Your article is inspired.

Mayor David M. Leake said...

The photo was taken around 1931. My grandfather Clarence "Tucky" Leake was driving passenger Chief Frank L. Dovel representing the City of Harrisonburg, Virginia. (3rd and 4th riders from the right)



Megan Rosenow said...

I just stumbled across this and love it! August "Babe" Cerini was my grandfather. :)

Thank you for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Babe was the best