A Brief History of Tontitown, Arkansas

Attendees of the Tontitown Grape Festival ca. 1910. Photo courtesy of the Tontitown Grape Festival Committee.

Tontitown is a city in Washington County, Arkansas, United. The community is located in the Ozark Mountains. Tontitown was founded in 1898 by a group of Italian Catholic immigrants led by their priest, Father Pietro Bandini. The town is named in honor of Henri de Tonti, the Italian who helped René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle explore the Mississippi River. The Tontitown Italians began their lives in America as tenant farmers on the south Arkansas plantation of Sunnyside (Chicot County). Groups from northern and central Italy arrived there in 1895 and 1897 and soon found themselves battling poor sanitation, disease, unfamiliar farming methods, language barriers, and contract disputes. In early 1898, some forty families chose to follow Father Bandini, the plantation’s resident priest, to the Arkansas Ozarks—where the climate, terrain, and small-scale agriculture were more similar to northern and central Italy. They settled on a parcel of rocky land west of Springdale. Abandoned cabins and outbuildings provided shelter until homes could be built. At the end of June 1898, Tontitown settlers held a picnic in observance of the Feast of St. Peter, Father Bandini’s patron saint. This annual picnic, which was moved to August in 1913 to coincide with the grape harvest, was the forerunner of today’s Tontitown Grape Festival, one of the longest-running annual community celebrations in Arkansas. Grapes had become Tontitown’s signature crop, especially with the arrival of a Welch’s grape juice factory in nearby Springdale in the early 1920s. Tontitown’s vineyards often produced three to five tons of grapes per acre (Young, 2018). 


Citation

Young, Susan. (2018, Jun. 19). Tontitown (Washington County). Retrieved from encyclopediaofarkansas.net.