By Konstantine Fekos
In a modern era where romance can be defined in various terms ranging from the scientific to the mundane, one Linesville couple embodies the spirit of a bygone era by crafting their own definition of what marriage and partnership means to them.
While Ernest and Bertha Zolnai of Linesville enjoy exchanging many flowers and cards amongst themselves over the years, they define their romantic longevity on the same principles they employed throughout their lifetime of business — work hard, build on a solid foundation and save for tomorrow.
“Bert and Ernie,” 85 and 93 respectively, spent their 68th anniversary at home, counting blessings and reminiscing over the many successes they achieved over the course of their partnership.
“When we first got married, that was a good many years ago, we started a business right off the bat,” Bertha said.
Falling in love was as easy as locking eyes for Bertha, the young girl working the counter at Jewel Dry Cleaners in Cleveland, and Ernest, a loan office manager, formerly a professional boxer and military man, who walked in with his dry cleaning in July 1944.
“It was love at first sight,” Bertha said. “Things just clicked off.”
Three months later, the two started Zolnai Enterprises, opening their own dry cleaning and pressing shop in Lorain, Ohio. It was the first in a series of businesses endeavors, punctuated only by their marriage in that very city on Jan. 21, 1945.
In seven years’ time, Bert and Ernie opened a farm market, started a construction company, opened a grocery store, built an apartment complex, opened a bar/lounge and started an independent claims and investigation company.
“Everything you want to do in life takes work,” Ernie said. “And you’ve got to work together.”
The couple hit the next major milestone in their company-based courtship on July 4, 1964, with the purchase of a 75-acre tree farm in Linesville.
“That’s where we built Pineview Camplands; built it from scratch,” said Ernie, who claimed his wife instigated their next business venture.
“We saw all these campers parked there and thought it would be a good place to make some money,” Bertha said. “We’d been in business all our married life, so we bought the 75 acres and moved to Pineview from Ohio.”
True to their principles, the two rolled up their sleeves and transformed the wooded area into a “paradise (recreational vehicle) park, a first for the area,” Ernie added, complete with a 5,000 square foot recreation hall for campers.
Maintaining a full-scale RV campground wasn’t enough for the working partners, who saw fit to tackle the renovation of a two-story farm house.
“That’s how we started when we moved to the new campgrounds,” Ernie said. “It still looked like a farm house on the outside, but inside, it looked like the White House. We were there for about six years.”
Buying and remodeling a run-down Linesville property proved a daunting task for the Zolnais, who had three children in tow by the time Ernie recalled mixing his own mud and plastering 10-foot-high walls.
While Bertha was reticent to take on the challenge at first, she could tell the house had a solid foundation. Despite her unwillingness, she stuck to their major principle — working together.
“That was the only big argument we’ve had,” Ernie said. “I said, ‘I’m going to buy it.’ She said no, but we started cleaning it up and it turned out to be a sound house.”
The Zolnais enjoyed the fruits of their labor for about 12 years before selling their camping empire and moving onto their next paradise, which turned out to be a quiet couple acres in Atlantic.
“We thought that’s all we needed, having been with the public all our life through one thing or another,” Bertha said.
Peace and quiet served them well for a time, Ernie concluded, but after a year or so, the couple decided on another adventure. Naturally, they purchased a motorhome and traveled to various campsites around the U.S. before settling in Fort Myers, Fla., for about 25 years.
Bertha fondly recalled putting Sesame Street dolls of their namesake in the back window of their motorhome, although she and her husband still claim to be the original “Bert and Ernie.”
Around the fall of 1978, they would once again heed the call of entrepreneurship when the Linesville Chamber of Commerce, as well as a bank and other businesses, contacted the Zolnais to see if they would consider building another RV park in the Linesville area.
After much deliberation, the campground moguls came out of retirement and returned to Linesville.
In 1979, they constructed Shady Acres RV Park, “an immediate success,” according to Ernie, who said campers abandoned other sites by the dozens to shack up on another Zolnai property.
“We opened another 5,000 square foot community hall with a store, small kitchen and game rooms,” Ernie said. To this day, he and his wife remember the campgrounds as one of the best businesses in which they’ve ever worked.
The couple sold Shady Acres in August 1988 and shifted back into retirement, at least to the extent of their careers.
Looking back on their lifetime of marriage, the Zolnais found they lived a life largely without regret and thoroughly enjoyed their many years working together and watching their four children and two step-children grow.
Pictures line the walls of their Linesville home, chronicling several subsequent generations of Zolnais.
Several of the those children took the family secrets to heart and started businesses of their own.
“The only thing I have to say, living as long as we’ve lived, is it doesn’t matter how much money you make or spend; save some for tomorrow,” Bertha said. “That’s been our strategy all of our married life. That way you’ll never be left with nothing.”
Now into their senior years, Bert and Ernie still keep to their philosophies on life and love, actively working to maintain their five or so acres in Linesville and catching up on their housework. Bertha enjoys cutting grass and tending to about 17 sizable flower beds in the spring and summer months.
Ernie keeps busy as well, sharing the yardwork, tending a quarter-acre garden of his own and spending time in his woodworking shop.
Their next project is simply to find a smaller home that requires a little less upkeep, as advanced years can wear even on the most earnest of workers.
“We lived a good life,” Bertha said. “You want to live a good, healthy life? Eat well, sleep well and work.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.