LIMA — Like so many immigrants at the turn of the century, Francisco “Frank” Bonanno dreamed of a better life in America.
Bonanno realized his dream in Lima, opening a grocery store on North Main Street. There along with his wife, Verginia, he raised 10 children. An 11th, named Rosa, died in infancy. The Bonanno children — Mary Francis, Ernest Ralph, Irene, Antoinette, Anna Maria, Angeline Mary, Lucia, Francis A., Cecelia Julie and Nicholas William — became beauticians, grocers and wine merchants. Anna Maria became Sister Marie Agnise.
But it was the second child, Ernest Ralph, who would follow the most difficult path.
Francisco Bonanno was born in southern Italy in 1869. After receiving his education in Italy and serving as a major in the Italian army, Bonanno in 1898 realized “a desire to come to America,” The Lima News wrote on Aug. 25, 1939, upon the death of the 70-year-old described as a “pioneer Lima merchant.” His wife, the former Verginia Musto, who was born in Italy in 1873, survived her husband by a dozen years, dying in 1951.
After a brief stint as an interpreter for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the News wrote, “Bonanno began the selling campaign that resulted in the prosperous wholesale market that now bears his name. Progress was made from the hand-basket stage to the push chart and a horse-and-wagon route.”
On June 23, 1933, the News noted an important anniversary for Bonanno. “Twenty five years ago Frank Bonanno, owner of the store, opened his first business venture in Lima. It was a fruit market in the same building, which has been enlarged since that time. For several years Bonanno conducted a branch store at the city market in South Main Street.”
A 1935 ad for Bonanno’s two-story market at 768 N. Main St., touted it as a “complete food market” with creamery butter for 34 cents per pound and a two-pound box of crackers for 17 cents as well as fresh strawberry layer cake from Renz’s Bakery for a quarter. The store also offered wine, Champagne — at $1.59 for a quart — and beer from Pabst and Diehl’s.
Joining Bonanno in operating the store were his sons, Ernest, Francis and Nicholas. In the summer of 1933, as the market celebrated its 25ths anniversary, Ernest Bonanno had been out of prison for about six months.
Trouble had seemed to follow Ernest Bonanno since 1920. In May of that year he was charged with conspiring with another man to steal his father’s touring car. The following year, with Prohibition the law of the land, he was charged with having “a quantity of raisin brandy, known as ‘white mule,’” according to the July 5, 1921, edition of the News.
In January 1923, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after being arrested en route to Cincinnati while attempting to elope with a 16-year-old girl. He eventually served 60 days in the Toledo work house on charges arising from the incident. In 1928, Ernest Bonanno was the target of several lawsuits following a collision near Indian Lake. According to an Aug. 25, 1928, story in the News, he was driving recklessly at the time.
The following year he seemingly wrecked his life. On Jan. 28, 1929, the News reported that 28-year-old Ernest Bonanno and another Lima man, a 23-year-old ex-prize fighter named Jack Verbryke, had been arrested in eastern Ohio. The pair, the News reported, “were identified as the filling station bandits who have operated on a large scale in Eastern Ohio since the holiday season.”
On Feb. 27, 1929, in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court, Ernest Bonanno was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in the Ohio Penitentiary. He served nearly four years before being released in December 1932. He returned to Lima and the family store on North Main Street.
Although Ohio’s legal system was through with Ernest Bonanno, Pennsylvania’s was not. Verbryke and Bonanno’s 1929 robbery spree in eastern Ohio had spilled over into western Pennsylvania and, in January 1934, authorities from that state attempted to extradite him to face charges in connection to a robbery there.
Since his release, however, Ernest Bonanno had built a store of good will, and Lima rallied to stop the proceedings.
“Spurred by the knowledge that he has ‘gone straight, and has become a good and substantial law- abiding citizen,’ scores of friends and officials rallied to the aid of Ernest Bonanno, 768 N. Main St., to prevent a possible attempt to extradite him to Pennsylvania,” the News wrote Jan 9, 1934. Pennsylvania took note and abandoned the effort.
Ernest Bonanno went on to lead the local squadron of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II and, after the war, became a key figure in local aviation circles. While his father had used a push cart early on in his grocery business, Ernest Bonanno later would use an airplane in the family wholesale wine business.
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Bonannos’ business grew. “Opening of an agency for the wholesale of choice domestic and imported wines and cordials was announced Saturday by F.A. Bonanno, manager of the company,” the News reported Nov. 29, 1936. “With offices at 768 N. Main St., the agency, dealing in carload shipments or less, has contracted to supply dealers in Lima and surrounding counties.”
In 1945, Al Seitz bought the Bonanno grocery on North Main Street and the Bonannos moved the growing beer and wine wholesale firm. “The Bonanno Wine Co., located in a modern brick building at 425 N. West St., is one of the points of interest to district sightseers,” the News wrote Feb. 24, 1945. The firm eventually would have facilities in Toledo, Columbus and Cincinnati as well as Lima.
On Oct. 22, 1957, a fire so hot “it made water from fire hoses boil,” according to the News, severely damaged the Bonannos’ two-story brick building on North West Street.
A little more than a year later, on Nov. 29, 1958, Ernest Bonanno again found himself in hot water when he was apprehended along with his son, Ronald, and another man walking out of the competing Dimond Wine & Novelty Company on Water Street with wine and other liquors. Although the men claimed they had been entrapped, a jury found them guilty the following May. Ronald Bonanno eventually was granted a new trial and the prosecution quashed the indictment against him. Ernest Bonanno and the other man received two years’ probation.
On April 24, 1959, the partnership between Ernest and Nicholas Bonanno in Bonanno Wine & Beer Company was dissolved. The third brother, Francis, had moved to Dayton some years earlier.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.