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The Tontitown Grape Festival is held each year in August as a celebration of the Italian heritage of Tontitown (Washington County). Featuring spaghetti dinners, carnival rides, arts and crafts booths, live music, and the crowning of Queen Concordia, the three-day festival is believed to be the longest-running annual community celebration in Arkansas.
Tontitown was founded in 1898 by a group of Italian Catholic immigrants led by their priest, Father Pietro Bandini. At the end of June 1898, Tontitown settlers—who had cleared land and planted gardens, orchards, and vineyards—held a thanksgiving picnic in observance of the Feast of St. Peter, Father Bandini’s patron saint. The celebration was observed annually by Catholic families in Tontitown, and after a few years, an invitation was extended to the surrounding communities to attend the festivities. Along with church services and spaghetti dinners, the picnic grew to an all-day event with baseball games, sack races, band concerts, and a dance.
In 1913, the picnic was moved to August to coincide with the grape harvest, and it was given the name Grape Day. By this time, Tontitown farmers were well known for their vineyards, and the Concord grape had become the town’s signature product. Within a few years, Grape Day became the Grape Festival, a fundraiser for the local parish.
The Grape Festival expanded to multiple days in the 1930s. At the heart of it all is the spaghetti dinner prepared by members of St. Joseph Catholic Church. Beginning in July each year, volunteers prepare hundreds of pounds of homemade pasta and sauce. Thousands of festival-goers (in recent years, nearly 9,000 annually) are served the spaghetti dinner, which also includes fried chicken, salad with homemade Italian dressing, homemade rolls, and, of course, Concord grapes. Proceeds from the spaghetti dinner, and the Queen Concordia contest, go to support the parish.
In 1932, Albina Mantegani was crowned as the first Grape Festival Queen. The queen contest did not resume again until 1942, when Elsie Mae Fiori was chosen as festival queen, with the title of “Queen Concordia.” The contest has been held every year since then. Three young women from Tontitown, or with Tontitown family ties, vie for the title of Queen Concordia. The contestant who sells the most raffle tickets for a new car or truck wins the title. The queen’s coronation is presided over by a local dignitary. Those who have crowned the queen in past years include Congressman Claude Fuller, Governor Orval Faubus, and Governor Bill Clinton.
Grape judging was once a main feature of the festival, but in the twenty-first century, there are not enough grape growers in Tontitown to put together such a contest. Even though the grape industry in Tontitown has declined over the years, the annual Grape Festival continues as a way to honor the grape’s key role in Tontitown history.
For additional information:Lemke, Walter J., ed. The Story of Tontitown, Arkansas. Fayetteville, AR: Washington County Historical Society, 1963.
Tontitown Grape Festival. http://tontitowngrapefestival.com/ (accessed January 29, 2013).
Young, Susan. So Big, This Little Place: The Founding of Tontitown, Arkansas, 1898–1917. Tontitown, AR: Tontitown Historical Museum, 2009.
Young, Susan, ed. Memories I Can’t Let Go Of: Life Stories from Tontitown, Arkansas. Fayetteville, AR: Farther Along Books, 2012.
Susan Young Shiloh Museum of Ozark History
Last Updated 3/26/2013
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