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119th Grape Festival celebrates Tontitown history

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Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/MARCIA SCHNEDLER

A display at Tontitown Historical Museum shows the Rev. Pietro Bandini along with the names of 1898’s original Italian-American settlers.

TONTITOWN -- A title character plays only a supporting role this week at the Tontitown Grape Festival. That's the grape itself, now relegated to cameo appearances at this venerable yearly celebration, whose roots date to 1899.

It's the case that not a lot of grapes are grown today around this Northwest Arkansas community, settled near the end of the 19th century by Italian immigrants who'd had bad luck in the opposite corner of the state. There is one local vintner, Tontitown Winery, which takes part in the five-day festival. And festival grape stomping did occur on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The perseverance of those pioneering Italians, to be honored at the 119th festival, is portrayed in ample detail at Tontitown Historical Museum. The exhibits, on display during extended hours today through Saturday, tell of the settlers' success in the face of daunting obstacles to becoming full-fledged Americans.

The immigrants arrived in Arkansas from north and central Italy in 1895 and 1897 as tenant farmers on Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County. There they faced language barriers, contract disputes, unfamiliar farming methods, malaria and other travails.

In 1898, 40 families followed their priest, the Rev. Pietro Bandini, across the state to land bought just west of Springdale. They named their new community after Henri de Tonti, the Italian explorer who had accompanied Robert de La Salle in the 17th century to what is now Arkansas. Bandini became the first mayor after Tontitown's incorporation in 1909.

A museum display addresses the local animosity that the new community had to overcome, including an attempt by thugs to burn down its schoolhouse, which also served as a temporary church. Parishioners then erected St. Joseph's Church, later destroyed by a tornado and rebuilt during World War II. Stained-glass panels from the first church are shown at the museum, along with vestments of the revered Bandini, who died in 1917.

The museum is housed in the former home of two original settlers, the sisters Mary and Zelinda Bastianelli. It was opened in 1986, a year after the death of Zelinda at age 102. Mary had served as housekeeper and secretary for Bandini. Zelinda had been the town's postmistress.

For decades, grapes were Tontitown's signature crop, as emphasized by the presence of a Welch's grape juice factory for a number of years. The local wine was served at several Italian restaurants, including the renowned Mary Maestri's, which operated from 1923 to 2010. Still open is the Venesian Inn, a purveyor of red-sauce fare since 1947.

As part of Northwest Arkansas' population boom, Tontitown has grown from 436 residents in the 1970 U.S. census to an estimated 3,500 today. Some are descendants of the 40 families who founded the community in 1898. Others take reflected pride in the history of their adopted town.

Many are attending the festival, which will see the yearly crowning of Queen Concordia at 9 p.m. Friday. A spaghetti dinner featuring pasta made by Tontitown residents will be served each day. There will be music along with carnival rides and games.

Visitors interested in the town's history can supplement a museum visit by stopping at City Hall, where the spirit of the community is evoked by "Antonio," a statue of an Italian immigrant looking hopefully ahead with suitcase in hand.

Tontitown Historical Museum, 154 E. Henri de Tonti Blvd. (U.S. 412), Tontitown, is normally open 1-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday. It will be open most of the day during this weekend's festival. Museum Admission is free, with donations welcome. Visit tontitown.com or call (479) 361-9800.

Admission is free to the grounds of Tontitown Grape Festival. An armband for carnival rides is $25 per day. Spaghetti dinner is $12 ($6 for youngsters). For festival details, visit tontitowngrapefestival.com.

Weekend on 08/03/2017

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