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)