Author: Peter Bernardi
Publication Date: 2004
Products for sale at 412 Elizabeth Street. (Photo by Joe Bernardi, 1969).
The ship "Andrea Doria" experienced a tragic end when she collided with another ship and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1955. Fortunately, her prior voyage brought my uncle, Joe Bernardi, safely across the Atlantic from his home in northern Italy to New York. From there he continued his journey to Guelph, his final destination. "Are you crazy? Is this the North Pole?!" This was Joe's first reaction upon greeting his older brother, Valentino, when he first stepped foot in Guelph in 1955. He had left the beautiful Mediterranean climate for the icy cold Canadian winter. My father, Valentino, had already been in Guelph for three years before Joe's arrival.
Valentino had somewhat adapted to the Canadian climate. "You'll get used to it," he said to Joe. "The good news is that there is work for you starting tomorrow." Joe simply looked down at his skimpy, tattered, worn-out shoes, soaking wet from helping a cab driver push out his taxi-cab that got stuck in a snow bank somewhere between the bus station and Valentino's apartment on Hayes Street. Despite all of this, he was happy to see his brother and older sister Antonietta who had made the same journey only one year earlier.
The situation for immigrants back in that era was bleak. The end of World War II brought only misery to Europe even with the Marshall Plan. What can people be expected to do when there is no work, no money, no social assistance of any kind? The solution seemed so easy and clear, yet so hard to do. The answer was to emigrate where there was work and send money home for the family. Yet, it must have been so difficult. Imagine you are 20-years-old, and you are embarking on a huge ship to cross the ocean to this unknown land called North America. Imagine waving goodbye to your mother, father, brothers, and sisters knowing that it would be many years before you would see each other again. Starting a business was the last thing on your mind. There was only one overriding purpose at that time, which was work to live.
The work Valentino had lined up for Joe was building houses with him for Cadillac Fairview Construction which was building a few houses in Guelph at that time. During construction, houses were heated with coal and once the construction of a house was completed, any excess coal in the basement had to be shoveled out a small window and onto a truck. Well, the tattered shoes were now black as could be. Joe knew his first purchase would be a new pair of Canadian boots as soon as he would receive his first pay cheque. Many more houses were built by the brothers for Cadillac Fairview in Toronto. They lived on-site in a security shack in Toronto by week and at Hayes Avenue in Guelph on weekends.
The sheer volume of work hours accumulated by Joe, Valentino, Antonietta (who worked shifts at the old St. Joseph's Hospital), and Valentino's wife, Maria (who worked at John Rennie's Shirt Factory), allowed them to save enough money to afford the materials for a house of their own. They spent many weekends building their home on Lane Street. The lumber came from a barn that was torn down in Toronto. Once completed, they realized that building houses could become a viable business for them and subsequently Bernardi Construction was started. The brothers built a few houses in Guelph on Sheridan Street and Laurine Avenue with modest success. The one good aspect about the construction industry was that one would meet many people.
Valentino had an idea of making concrete sidewalk and patio slabs in the garage of their house and selling them to the builders they knew. The first sale was to Ingram Construction who used the slabs in the construction of their own homes. By 1964, it had become obvious that the garage was too small. They bought the land at 4I2 Elizabeth Street which was mainly three acres of swamp. Fred Prior and Sons Ltd. of Guelph brought fill in and the brothers built a modest 2000 square foot building. The birth of the company was also followed by the birth of my brother Joseph and by 1967, my twin brother Paul and I were born. With my two siblings and me, my father had three instant employees in the making for the new business.
All new businesses carry an element of risk. It could be the risk of losing money, wasting time, or the opportunity lost of doing something else. It was no different in our family. Despite the risks, the one good aspect of a family business is exactly what the word espouses: family. All seven of us lived in the same house and worked at the same business. We had one comnon goal and could rely on each other's support. This brought a sense of closeness and strength. Valentino's child rearing technique was quite simple: keep them busy and they will stay out of trouble. Well, we had no time for trouble since any free time was devoted to the business. It was fun for us since we were performing activities that no other kids were doing at that time. For example, we would drive the forklifts and tractors, bolt molds together, and make concrete.
Storefront in 1967 showing large concrete horses. (Photo by Joe Bernardi).
Joe and Valentino expanded their product line to include concrete steps and a few small birdbaths and flowerpots. The house construction part of the business was stopped, and all effort was concentrated on their new endeavour. In 1967, they felt they needed one big item to catch people's attention and to promote the business. The hood ornament of a rearing horse on their old Dodge pick-up truck sparked an idea that changed the future direction of the business. With this three-inch horse as a model, they sculpted a seven-foot-high horse out of plaster. Once that was completed, they then made a mold of it and cast the horse out of concrete. When placed outside, cars began to stop to see these beautiful huge horse statues. As a result, the company started to become better known in Guelph. Then, just as the business was getting off the ground, the family received some devastating news. Valentino was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This debilitating disease came out of nowhere. There was no family history of it, and he was perfectly healthy in every other way. Nevertheless, the doctor told him to stop working and rest at home. He was told that this disease would put him in a wheelchair and was given five years to live. Valentino had one response: "Only God can tell me when I will die, and I will keep on working for as long as I can." That is exactly what he did. The five years turned into ten and the ten into 20. The disease did take its toll but not to the extent feared. He was able to walk, albeit without the best of balance.
By 1978 we had a great system in place. During the day, the employees would de-mold the statues, and by 4 o'clock, my brothers and I would arrive from St. James School to fill the molds with concrete for the next day's de-molding. It was like clockwork. Joseph would make the concrete, I would pour it into the molds, and Paul would vibrate the concrete and trowel the molds off. It was a great system and the product line expanded tremendously every year. By 1980, just about everything was being produced: fountains, pots, deer, lions, dogs, Snow White and the seven dwarfs and any other item made of concrete. It didn't matter if it was a fancy statue or a plain concrete beam, we would make it all. The process was always the same: make an original out of plaster, make a mold, and cast as many as you can with that mold. All of the family had artistic talent (except me, that is), and everybody had a particular strength. Antonietta especially had a unique gift for fine detail. She would finish her hospital shift at 11 P.M. and proceed to the shop to sculpt and paint until 1 or 2 A.M.
In 1986 we made a 14-foot-high concrete rooster to place outside our shop. I remember thinking my family had lost their minds. Obviously, we didn't expect to sell any. We only wanted to attract attention. Well, from the minute we placed that thing outside of our shop on Elizabeth Street, cars had to stop to take a better look. Wedding photographs that would routinely be taken at the Ontario Reformatory on York Road would stop on their way to take a picture with the rooster. People outside of the city were taking notice as well. To this day people still give directions according to the rooster. I hear it all the time: "Go down Elizabeth Street, you know, where they have the big rooster out front, and then take a left on Macdonell Street and that will take you Downtown." That same rooster is still out front today. It seems to have been a success. In fact, we sell about one every year. Buyers have included chicken farmers, garden centres, and restaurants such as Swiss Chalet.
In the mid and late '80s, it seemed as if our business was nonstop. We were now supplying garden centres across Ontario. We had also started manufacturing bigger items such as gazebos, large fountains, and pillars. We had to expand our shop to a 10,000 square-foot facility. By the late '80s, however, Mulroney's controversial free trade accord had come into effect. Now we were seeing a flood of U.S. imports into Canada. Some of these enormous U.S. companies were selling to the very same garden centres that we supplied. To add to this, the recession in the early '90s was bad for everyone. We decided that if U.S. companies could come into our backyard and sell products, then we could do the same there. Friends and customers returning from vacations in Florida would tell us how there was a lack of fountains and statues in Florida. My brother Paul and I drove down to see if there was a market in that state for our products. Indeed, it seemed there was. We also wanted to visit any 'would-be' competition and surprisingly found none. There were many places that made smaller items, but no one really manufactured the larger twenty-foot-high fountains that we made. So, with the same spirit and determination that Joe and Valentino had shown starting the business over 20 years ago; my brother Paul and I loaded up our tractor trailer with large and small items and headed for Miami to participate in home and garden shows. It was not as easy as we thought. First of all, with no permanent base in Florida, we had to sell everything at the show. If a customer wanted a fountain painted pink, we would paint it right there in the hotel parking lot. There was no way we would drive back to Guelph with items we just drove down with. Other items not sold would be placed in storage in Miami until the next home show came along. Many of the shows were in different cities and at different times. Some were great and some were downright horrible.
Large Roman fountain installed at Trump's mansion in Bedford, New York. (Photo by Peter Bernardi).
After two years of driving back and forth from Guelph to Miami we decided it was time to buy a piece of land there, in order to sell items. The problem was that the city's zoning laws did not allow outside display of products unless a six-foot-high wall was built around the perimeter of the property. (It seemed they did not want items blown around during hurricane season.) This wall would have been disastrous for us since no one would be able to see our statues while driving by. We finally found a one-acre property in West Palm Beach that allowed us to display outside. This property looked like a mini jungle with a small, dilapidated house where drug addicts would sleep. The good part was that the price was right, and it fronted a six-lane high-volume road. Looking back, I cannot believe all the work we put into it to make it into a presentable store. There was not enough money to hire subcontractors to do the work, so we had to do it ourselves. I remember asking Paul, "Are we nuts? Is this really worth it?"
Everything was slowly coming along. Paul and I were living in Miami (since we were going to school there as well) and travelling the two-hour drive back and forth to West Palm to work on the store. Finally, the day came when we moved out of our Miami apartment and into the house in West Palm. That very night at about 8 P.M., Paul and I received news that changed our family's life forever. Our father Valentino had died in a tragic accident. What in life can remotely prepare you for that information? He was only 67 years old.
Months later we were back in Florida wondering whether to continue or pack it in. We knew Valentino would want us to go on, so we did. In 1997, the economy was going well, and Paul and I were continuing operations at our Florida store. One day, a beautiful blue Rolls Royce came into our yard and out stepped a man in a baseball cap. He turned to us and asked if he could look around. "Of course," we replied. Then Paul and I looked at each other and whispered, "Is that Donald Trump?" Indeed, it was Donald Trump. He came to us and told us he loved our large fountains and needed one at his Bedford, New York mansion. "Where are they made?" he asked. "Toronto," I responded." "Oh, I've been to Toronto before," he said. "Well, we actually make them in Guelph," I added. "It's about one hour west of Toronto." "Interesting," he said, "And your family actually sculpts and makes the fountains?" "All in Guelph," I replied.
In no time he had picked out a large fountain along with benches, urns, statues, etc. Since then, we have installed our products for him in New York, California, Atlantic City, and West Palm Beach. We even installed a small fountain on his bedroom balcony at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach. Now he comes once every two months and asks, "What's your new product? Is it big? Is it flashy?" Unfortunately for us, he will not tell anyone where he bought the products. He said that if someone asked him where he bought the fountain, he would tell them he bought it at an auction in Vienna or it came from a castle in Rome, when in fact it came from Guelph.
Subsequently, other notables have bought our sculptures as well. Boxing promoter Don King purchased many items for his 600-acre ranch in Ohio. Rod Stewart purchased concrete eagles for his gate entrance in Palm Beach. Andre Galarraga of the Atlanta Braves purchased a fountain. As well, we are seeing our products more and more on television. For example, one can see our Roman fountain in the movie Two Weeks' Notice starring Sandra Bullock, and we have also noticed our products on A&E Biography shows that chronicle the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
It is wonderful to sell these works of art to such notable people knowing that they are all made right here in Guelph. The shop continues manufacturing all year long in the same location and with the same spirit it started with almost 40 years ago. For Joe Bernardi, the winters in Guelph may still seem like the North Pole, but there is no other place he calls home.
"This story is dedicated to Antonietta Bernardi who inspired, encouraged, and instilled a sense of perseverance and dedication that I will always take with me."
- Peter Bernardi.