loading background

Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

cover photo

G.B. Russo Establishes His Business

by Kim Rush, John Russo, and Martin Starr

G.B.’s grocery businesses carried such culinary staples as bulk olive oil, green and black olives, tomato paste, cheeses, pepperoni and salami, macaroni, bread, and baccala (dehydrated salted cod fish), which were made available through importers or local sources. Many of the early Italian immigrants were men who had temporarily left their families behind. They missed their native cuisine, and were very pleased to discover that G.B. was peddling it. Italians living in outlying communities like Holland, Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Muskegon and Kalamazoo would seek out G.B. and the D’Amico’s for their products. The D’Amicos had established their grocery store across the street from the Russos at 747 Division during the same decade as Russo, yet there was actually very little competition between these stores. The two families were very friendly with each other and watched out for each other.

G.B.’s sister, Maria Giammona, and his daughter Jennie have told Russo family historians that as early as 1905 G.B. occasionally set up a food stand in East Grand Rapid’s Ramona Park. A friend who worked with the park secured a spot for him on Wealthy Street, a good location for selling food to the crowds. “Italians from little towns outside of Grand Rapids would flock to Ramona Park to celebrate holidays, and buy his fresh Italian bread,” his daughter Jennie claims.

Girolama, his mother, and first wife, Cruci, contributed to this venture by baking bread. Eventually it became too expensive to sustain both this business and his S. Division Ave. store so he quit vending at Ramona Park. Purportedly, he also set up tables near Grand Rapids furniture factories to sell fresh-baked Italian bread to their employees.

By 1910 G.B.’s parents and his sisters were living at 21 Miller St. S.W.[1] Francesco and Girolama Russo’s family had added two children born in Grand Rapids: daughter, Mamie Girolama, in 1907, and son, Joseph, in 1909. The neighborhood near the NW corner of Ionia and Fifth (Franklin) SW, was close to their son’s store. All the homes in this section, on the little streets that ran east and west off Ionia Avenue, have been razed. In the early 1900s this area was part of a small Italian community, commonly called “Little Italy.” As late as 1949, this neighborhood was still referred to by this name.[2] In an article that explores the origins of the early Italian community in Grand Rapids, Scott Noto estimated that there were only 250-300 Italians living in Grand Rapids by 1900.[3]

Numerous Russo family members resided and worked in various capacities at the Division Street locality. All of G.B.’s children, including Frank, John’s father, were born in one of the two family apartments located above his grocery store. The youngest daughter, Jennie Russo (Moschetti) was born on May 7, 1921, in a room that featured large windows, which overlooked Division Street below. Her birthplace was eventually remodeled into a coat checkroom for a rental hall.

[1] Polk city directory, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1910

[2] Michigan, A Guide to the Wolverine State.  Federal Writers Project, 1949

[3] Scott Noto:  Escaping La Miseria, The Story of Grand Rapids First Italian Residents, Grand River Valley History, Volume XVI, 1999  (available in GRPL History Collection)


Like Us on Facebook
site by GRCMC