Fried Chicken and Spaghetti

A history of Tontitown, Arkansas

By Jeannie Whayne

The Italians who created Tontitown, Arkansas, followed a circuitous route from Italy, which was undergoing a massive economic and demographic revolution, to southeast Arkansas in 1895 where they suffered economic exploitation and disease. After the situation there deteriorated in 1898, and prospects appeared hopeless, their confessor, Father Petro Bandini, led them to northwest Arkansas where they were met with further challenges but found success through perseverance and hard work.

They had to overcome the hostility of some of the local white population unaccustomed to the “strange ways” of the Italian Catholics who settled amongst them. They also had to put to the plow land which had lain fallow for some years and experiment with different crops to find the right combination of fruits, vegetables, and, most of all, grapes.

In 1899 they held their first harvest festival and by 1932 it had morphed into the locally famous grape festival and attracted the surrounding population in ever growing numbers. The annual grape festival is still a feature on the calendar of many citizens in northwest Arkansas today where they can feast on fried chicken and authentic hand-made spaghetti followed by grape ice cream. And, of course, wines from a local Italian winery can be purchased from concession booths.

The journey of the Tontitown Italians from poverty to prosperity did not begin or end in southeast Arkansas, but their experience in Chicot County marked an important moment in the history of the Sunnyside plantation. Sunnyside had been a flourishing antebellum plantation and the centerpiece of planter Elijah Worthington’s operations. With five hundred slaves, Worthington was the largest slaveholder in Arkansas and one of the largest in the South. Sunnyside was the most prosperous of his four plantations and was where most of his slaves endured the hardships of cotton cultivation in fertile ground only newly wrested from forest and swamp. After the Civil War and the death of Worthington, the land was briefly held by his heirs and then sold to the grandson of famous South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun. They served only as absentee landowners, however, and failed to find success with it.

In 1886 a New York robber baron Austin Corbin, took possession of Sunnyside plantation. Corbin used various forms of labor available to him, including convict labor at one point, but in 1895 his acquaintance with the mayor of Rome, Emanuele Ruspoli, and a priest by the name of Pietro Bandini, led him to a fateful decision.

Father Pietro Bandini

Father Bandini had been working with Italian immigrants in New York City and came to believe that Italians immigrants would be better settled on farmland where they could prosper rather than in New York City. Corbin offered an attractive proposition. The original plan was to place the Italian immigrants on parcels of land that they could cultivate and, over time, purchase. But the plan went awry very quickly.

First, within a year, nearly one hundred members of the 125 families who settled there had died of malaria. Second, the situation worsened when Corbin himself died in a carriage accident in New York in 1896 and his heirs leased it to some Mississippi planters organized as the O.B. Crittenden Company. These Mississippi planters entertained no notion of selling the land in parcels to the immigrants, and they put into place the pernicious sharecropping system with the intent of reaping what profit they could off the backs of the Italians. Sharecropping arose in the South after the Civil War as a compromise between former slaves and planters.

As one historian has put it, slaves received “nothing but freedom” and did not have the means to purchase land. And as another said, what awaited them was the “shadow of slavery”. Occupations other than farm labor were closed to them, and many ended up working on the plantations on which they had been slaves. But the Freedmen and freedwomen wanted some sense of “freedom” from the supervision, at least, of the planters for whom they labored. Planters, for their part, were unhappy with the contract labor system they had been operating under since the Civil War, mostly because it required them to pay regular wages, and they did not have the means to do so given the prices of cotton in the late 1860s and 1870s and the fact that planters themselves only received the returns on their crops upon harvest.

What seemed like a good idea to black sharecroppers, however, became a nightmare as planters, in an effort to supply their sharecroppers until the end of the year when they would be paid their share of the crop, advanced sharecroppers supplies and charged an exorbitant interest rate (as high as 25%). By the end of the year, many sharecroppers owed more money than their crops were worth, and to make matters worse, laws were passed making it illegal for a sharecropper to leave the employment of the planter for whom he worked unless he had paid all of his debt. The practices of the planters who engaged in the sharecropping system were so onerous that southeast Arkansas was itself suffering a demographic revolution as African Americans joined the Back-to-Africa movement or departed as exodusters to Kansas.

Once the Crittenden Company took over Sunnyside, the Italians seemed destined to become ensnared in this system but they resisted. In May of 1897 they formed a committee and presented a petition to the company. They “charged that they had been misled about the climate, the water, the availability of extra work for cash, and the high prices and interest rates charged at the company store.”

Father Pietro Bandini complained to the Italian ambassador, at first to no avail. But after “an epidemic of yellow fever had left forty-four children and twenty-eight adults dead at the end of 1897,” an account of the disastrous situation appeared in the Italian press. This prompted the Italian government to send an emissary to investigate, and by the time he arrived in January 1898 he the situation had only worsened. “New practices, such as charging for services that previously had been furnished free, had further strained the relationship between colonists and management.”

The company had installed filters on the water system but this hardly served as a remedy for malaria. Malaria is caused by a certain type of mosquito which bred in stagnant waters such as those used as the water system at Sunnyside. The Italian settlers – and the ambassador’s emissary – demanded artisan wells. But no strong demands came from the Italian government, probably owing to the “massive social, political, and economic upheavals” brought about by industrialization in Italy.

By 1898, the situation had become intolerable so Bandini led forty families to Northwest Arkansas where he had scouted land they could purchase. The settlement they created they named after Henri de Tonti, an Italian explorer who founded the first permanent European settlement in Arkansas, Arkansas Post, not too distant from Sunnyside plantation.

Accounts of their initial reception in Northwest Arkansas differ, but at least some early twentieth century sources paint an unflattering image of the local population. Northwest Arkansas was an overwhelmingly white and protestant region and had been settled in the antebellum era by migrants from the Appalachians. In the 1830s and 1840s, in fact, northwest Arkansas had vied with the planters of the Delta in terms of prosperity. They grew a mix of crops, raised cattle and hogs, and held few slaves. While most of them sided the Confederate cause during the Civil War, northern Arkansas contributed the majority of the ten thousand Arkansans who wore Union blue.

Both of the large battles fought in Arkansas were fought nearby – one at Prairie Grove and the other at Pea Ridge – and the region was variously held by Union and Confederate troops. But “held” is a strong word and, in fact, most of the time it was given over to guerilla activity that was so devastating that when the Union Army devised a home farm system to draw together local Union supporters into an area where they might be protected, even Confederate sympathizers embraced the opportunity.

By the time the Italians arrived in northwest Arkansas, however, the local white population had largely forgotten their union brethren and were on the verge of erecting a Confederate statue in the Bentonville Square. They embraced the lost cause mentality, responded enthusiastically to the racist rhetoric that marked the 1890s disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans in the South, and accepted the anti-immigrant sentiments arising in the North as only natural. It was in this context that the Sunnyside Italians arrived by train in 1898 to take up their newest challenge.

As these new migrants disembarked from the train and made their way to the land that was to become their own, they faced an uncertain future and accounts differ on their reception by the local white population. Mary Pinalto, in a 1982 interview reported, “We were such strange people to these people around here . . . they were hard to get acquainted with since we couldn’t speak the language. They all turned out to be so good that we liked them all. People were nice to us, and we appreciated it.”

Accounts drawn from earlier in the century were less sanguine. Not only were they foreign and Catholic, few of them could speak English, and the locals had encountered nothing like them before. As a writer for one muckraking magazine put it in 1909, “the arrival of these pitiful starving Italians disgusted the whole community. There was no door open to them, no charity for them – only contempt, hatred, sneers, threats of bodily harm, open endeavors to drive them away and to wreck their community.”

Although condescending in its depiction of the Italians and almost certainly an overstatement of the hostility awaiting them, the article captures at least a version of the true circumstances that confronted the Sunnyside refugees. “The Americans tried in those first years every possible means to trouble the Italians, with the aim of having them move away. Semi-barbaric bands from the Indian Territory burned their farms. One of these bands on a Saturday night, put fire to the school,” but it was saved.

The reference to “semi-barbaric bands from Indian territory” warrants a pause for clarification. At the time the Italians arrived in northwest Arkansas, “Indian Territory” existed just to the west of Washington and Benton counties. Indeed, the state of Oklahoma had yet to be admitted into the Union (that would occur in 1907) and harbored some lawless elements known to be troublesome. What might have motivated them to travel to Tontitown to prey upon the Italians is worth pondering, however, and it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that placing the culprits at a distance was a device the author might have employed to avoid laying blame on the local population, some of whom would have been subscribers to the publication for which he was writing. Nevertheless, the school was set afire and was saved only by the timely intervention of Father Bandini.

“One of these bands one Saturday night put fire to the school, which would have been destroyed if the priest, always on the lookout, had not seen the flames. The following day a crowd of Americans came to look upon the ruins, but they found the building still standing and Father Bandini waiting for them, addressing them thus in English”:

“We are all Americans here,” he said, “and I am warning you that we will use our American rights in our own defense. There are few men among us who have not served in the Italian army. We are familiar with guns. From this moment on I am the colonel of our regiment, and I assure you that night and day a sentinel will guard our streets. Anyone who comes to us intent on evil-doing will be shot.”

While the daring speech apparently had its effect, there were more immediate and relatively routine matters to deal with. From the beginning, they faced a daunting challenge in terms of sheer physical survival. Some funds had been raised by Father Bandini for the purchase of land, but when they arrived the sellers “raised the price of the land from 8 to 15 dollars.” The funds Bandini had secured were insufficient to pay that price, so they were forced to secure a mortgage. That first winter was hard and cold, and they “huddled together with two or three families living in each of the log cabins found in the timbered land,” they caught rabbits to cook and eat, and some of the men went to Oklahoma (Indian territory) to work the mines.

One of the most pressing questions confronting them was what kinds of crops they might grow. They tried a number of options. They discovered that the variety of grape they were accustomed to was unsuited to the soil and the weather in northwest Arkansas. They turned to a variety of grape that would grow in the local soil, but there is some dispute in the historiography over two issues.

Historian Rebecca Howard, in an award-winning recent paper, disputes the traditional narrative which posits two things. One, that the Italians were the first to grow grapes of any kind in the region; and, second they grew only sugar grapes. In fact, grapes had been grown in the region since the 1870s and, perhaps more consequentially, the Italians grew wine grapes from the beginning and became known for their excellent wines. But grape vines take three years to mature, and vegetables and strawberries were what maintained the settlers in their first years. They also turned to orchard crops and were making progress with that until San Jose Scale damaged their apples. They even experimented silk worms at one point. But their grapes were becoming more and more important to them as the plants matured and their reputation for excellent wines grew.

As they became more comfortable and successful in their new environment, the Italians set about improving their homes, their school, and their church. So successful were they that the Italian Ambassador, Baron Mayor des Planches, paid the village a visit in the summer of 1906. As one account has it,

“The (ambassador’s) train arrived at Springdale early on a summer morning. As soon as it pulled into the station, festive cries of welcome and the sound of the band attracted his attention. His Excellency looked out of his window. On the platform was a great crowd of Americans and Italians in gala attire. American and Italian flags waved all over. Stores were decorated with the colors of both nations.”

Father Bandini was at the head of the welcoming committee and placed the ambassador in a carriage and then with a crowd from Tontitown walked the six miles from the train station to the village. “Along the way at intervals stood Italians, two by two, one bearing the American flag and the other the Italian flag. When the procession passed, they would salute and put themselves at the end of the procession, until the whole village, young and old, found itself marching toward Tontitown. There, on the steps of the church, was the Tontitown band playing the national anthems of the two countries.”

Upon arriving in Tontitown the ambassador was treated to a festival and then a banquet. It seems appropriate here for this particular crowd to give you a sense of the menu.

“There was not only rare and abundant fruits, strawberries, etc., but home-cooked Italian dishes. Macaroni made with eggs in the Italian style, wine made in Tontitown by Italian methods, chianti and muscatel – all that which is served at the table had been produced in Tontitown in the Italian style.”

By 1915, they had managed to make a place for themselves on the land but were to face a new challenge. Since the late nineteenth century, in keeping with what was happening elsewhere in the South, various organizations in Arkansas had been working to bring prohibition of alcohol to the state. The rhetoric of prohibition focused on the disruption the brew brought to family and home. Alcohol, they argued, turned men into poor providers and, at worst, violent and abusive. Some employers joined the debate, hoping for a more tractable and reliable work force.

The two organizations in Arkansas that were most prominent in the drive for prohibition were the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They failed in 1910 to secure a statewide ban on alcohol but stepped up their campaign using racist rhetoric – speaking to the barbarity of black men on demon rum and criticizing the integrated nature of many saloons in the state where miscegenation might be the result. The campaign even took on an anti-Catholic – and thus Anti- Tontitown Italian – hew. The prohibition forces pulled out all the stops and their pressure on the legislature ultimately led to the passage of a “bone dry” law in 1915 which took effect on January 1, 1916.

The “bone dry” law had the predictable impact on the Tontitown grape growers. According to Rebecca Howard, they turned to sugar grapes. A signal of their success in growing sugar grapes came with the placement of a Welches Grape Juice plant in Springdale in 1921 that “contracted for the entire crop grown in the area.” By 1931, a story in the Arkansas Democrat, a statewide publication, lauded the success of Tontitown.

“Since its founding Tontitown has grown in wealth and prosperity. The Italians have tripled their holdings and the homes have been converted from small, one room log cabins whose cracks were plastered with mud, to buildings credible to any growing agricultural community. Many own their own homes and the land for which the Italians paid $15 per acre is now valued at $75 to $150 per acre.”

The price of Tontitown land has grown even greater in the early 21st century and not altogether for its agricultural value. A number of relatively new housing subdivisions exist in the area. What may not be immediately obvious, however, are the more subtle and yet more profound differences that have emerged in the years since Tontitown was founded. The Tontitown Italian Catholics and the local protestant population live harmoniously together today. In fact, they have, to some extent, intermarried with the local population. Historian Rebecca Howard, for example, is a product of one such union. Although she now teaches in Texas, she is a regular attendee at the annual Grape Festival in August, and the less well known Polenta-Pull in October. The grape festival itself is a reflection of this marriage between cultures: Spaghetti with the traditional Italian sauce, on the one hand, and southern fried chicken on the other.

Intermarriage happened not only with Northwest Arkansas folk but also with immigrants to the region who were not themselves Italian. When an Irish girl, Mary Ritter, attended the festival in 1904, she met Aldo Maestri and they married soon after. She learned from her new in-laws how to cook Italian and in 1923, after a failure of the grape harvest, she began to sell Italian dinners out of her kitchen. This eventually evolved into Mary Maestri’s restaurant, an icon of the era that, sadly, exists no more. The legacy lives on in the food, the culture, and the festival, however, a testament to the ability of immigrants to succeed and become important contributors to a community and region.

Jeannie Whayne is a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians and professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Her research focuses on the social and economic history of the lower Mississippi River Valley. Whayne delivered this lecture at our 2019 Summer Field Trip to Bentonville, Arkansas.