Among the numerous things I enjoy about Arkansas, festivals rank high on my list. Like other small states with signature (and sometimes ethnic) communities, a number of Arkansas festivals are rooted in long traditions. One of the established historic festivals, the Tontitown Grape Festival, will mark its 116th year beginning next week.
Tontitown, Arkansas was founded in 1898 by a Catholic priest who gave his town the name of an early explorer of America, a man named Henri de Tonti (1649-1704). The majority of original settlers were Italian and Catholic. The town’s most prominent building and landmark remains the centrally-located Catholic church building.
Unlike a vast number of towns in America that died (or almost died) because they were bypassed by major highways, the primary east-west corridor (that reaches from Oklahoma on the west and traverses through Springdale back to rural and less populated areas east) was paved straight through the middle of Tontitown, leaving a church building on the north with the park, City Hall and museum on the south.
The community surrounding the church building has grown remarkably in recent years, but some traditions – including the annual Grape Festival – still attract thousands to the church grounds for carnival rides and games, the grape stomp, an arts and crafts fair and most often, to enjoy this gathering of old friends and past acquaintances.
One of the biggest draws of the festival is a traditional Italian spaghetti dinner, prepared and served by volunteers. This effort begins weeks ahead of the festival and volunteers will make some 3,600 pounds of spaghetti to feed about 8,000 people. The dinner serves as an annual fundraiser for the church.
Almost every year, my Beloved purchases a $1.00 chance to win a brand new truck given away on the final night of the festival. Recognizing our chances are slim, we’re glad to contribute to the fundraiser. (I know, such charity is pretty underwhelming!)
Grapes used to be a large crop that helped build the economy for our state. From what I can tell right now, grapes have steadily decreased almost to economic irrelevance. Too frequently, sudden late freezes have killed or severely damaged the crops, making for a slim harvest. (Weather issues have also plagued other once-vibrant crops hereabouts, notably peaches and apples.) Still, the Grape Festival continues to be a mainstay to the area.
Even though a number of the vineyards have disappeared, local and regional micro-brewers and wineries have begun to multiply again. It’s always fun to have a new place with new products to sample! New micro-brewers and vintners present an interesting array of tempting options.
There’s also something old-worldish and quaint about Tontitown. In addition to the city park’s playground equipment, baseball diamond and tennis courts, there are bocce ball courts where men gather to enjoy competitive play. During the May celebration of Heritage Day, they hold a bocce tournament.
Small towns offer such an appeal with their unique flavor, charming local culture and family-friendly activities. Tontitown is one such place that, if you come to enjoy the festival, you’ll create pleasing memories that (sooner or later) will draw you back again.
Ya’ll come see us now, okay?