(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – September 2011, No. 82)
Louis William Bonsib
Louis Bonsib, artist and advertising executive, was born in Vincennes, Indiana, in March 1892, a grandson of his name sake who had immigrated to the United States from Alsace-Lorraine during the years of Napoleon Bonaparte. He and four brothers or step brothers made the trip to New Orleans in the mid-1800s. How the name became Bonsib from whatever the surname was in Europe remains a mystery. Grandfather Louis met Henriette Caspermor, married and moved to Vincennes. Here the couple became the parents of four children. The youngest, John F. Bonsib and father of Louis W. Bonsib, was born in 1862.
John opened a business buying bicycle parts and assembled them for sale. Later he opened a furniture store which became quite a successful venture. By 1890 John met and married Ida Brown and two years later Louis W. Bonsib was born. Unfortunately, Ida died in 1894 and Louis was cared for by his Aunt Molly. It was she who encouraged Louis to pursue his natural art talent drawing and painting leaves. By the time Louis was fifteen, he heard a lecturer speak about building a radio to transmit Morse code. Louis built and assembled a radio from parts he could find and using a window screen for an antenna, was able to communicate with a distant friend.
Later as crystal radio sets became available Louis was able to produce a better radio and while still in high school he was granted a license to operate the first ham radio in the state of Indiana. Modern Electrics magazine featured him in an issue to show the achievements of a young amateur. It was so early in the days of radio that Louis was able to purchase and sell parts to companies and individuals interested in building their own sets.
Although first pursuing art courses in 1910 through the International Correspondence School, Louis had visions of becoming an electrical engineer. That same year he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and later at Vincennes University. Not entirely pleased with his choice, he decided to enroll at Indiana University in 1912 and in 1914 was studying Sociology at the University of Illinois. Returning to IU he was accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa Fraternity while a member of the wrestling team. He also started as the center on the football team and found the time to work on the IU yearbook, the Arbutus. He graduated Summa cum laude and took a position with the Indianapolis Engraving Company. It led him into the advertising agency business and in 1923 he set up his own shop in Peru, Indiana. Not pleased with the business’ performance he moved his activities to Fort Wayne.
At first, the Fort Wayne clients did not think to pay for the artwork produced by ad agencies. Louis thought differently and demanded payment which the clients did without complaint. In 1926 to solidify the agency-client relationship, Louis organized the Fort Wayne Advertising Club which thrived until the Great Depression came along. After World War II the Ad Club was reconstituted and Louis initiated a speakers’ bureau that found him traveling the Midwest promoting the opportunities an advertising agency offers business operations. Serving as many as twenty accounts in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, Bonsib grew the agency concentrating on radio and automobile manufacturer clients. Others included Wayne Pump and Magnavox. In 1941 he listed more than one hundred companies that had been or continued as Bonsib Advertising clients. Bonsib Advertising grew and became one of the most successful and highly regarded agencies in the state.
Painting continued to be one of Louis’ passions, and he continued using his oils and watercolors to capture the scenes of favorite sites especially in Brown County. Other locations took him around the world from Maine, Quebec and California, Appalachian valleys, to Hawaii, Japan, Alaska and Europe. If he did not have the time to paint on his visit, he’d photograph the scene to paint later. The celebrated Hoosier Salon exhibited his work in a gallery in New Harmony, Indiana, exhibitions in Chicago, and the Salon’s Broad Ripple, Indianapolis gallery. Bonsib’s paintings hang today in many collections and in many private homes. One titled, “Morning in Brown County” was presented to Indiana University’s Union in Bloomington, Ind., where L. W. Bonsib served as a board member in 1915-16. In 1939, commencement visitors to the university could view Bonsib’s, “Snow in Tennessee” which formed a part of that year’s prize-winning selections from the Hoosier Art Salon.
As Dr. Michael J. Mastrangelo stated in his December 2009 Quest Club paper reviewing the life of “Louis William Bonsib 1892-1979 More than an Artist,” Louis chose to donate the major portion of his library of over 200 art books and pamphlets to Vincennes University as well as several hundreds of his paintings. Not long after, the school honored him with an honorary doctorate degree. A room at that university was dedicated in Bonsib’s honor for the Northwest Territory Art Guild in the Old State Bank Building. He treasured the honor for being presented the first Silver Medal Award for lifetime achievement and service presented by Printers Ink magazine and the Advertising Federation of America.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi© is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.