When Italian Catholic immigrants founded the community of Tontitown in 1898, they probably had no idea they would start one of Arkansas' longest-running annual community celebrations.
The Tontitown Grape Festival has been a success going on 121 years. It began as a thanksgiving picnic observed annually by Catholic families at the end of June, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Tontitown Grape Festival
WHEN — 5-11 p.m. Aug. 6-8; 1-11 p.m. Aug. 9-10
WHERE — 154 E. Henri De Tonti Blvd., west of Springdale
COST — Parking, admission and entertainment are free; carnival armbands cost $20 Aug. 6-7 & $25 Aug. 8-9. All-day passes will be $25 Aug. 10.
INFO — tontitowngrapefestival.com
BONUS — Nightly live music includes Phil McGarrah, Bellamy Brothers, Wade Hayes, Heath Sanders, Kolt Barber & the Swon Brothers.
The celebration was moved to August to coincide with the grape harvest in 1913, once Tontitown farmers became well-known for their vineyards. Eventually, surrounding communities were invited to join in the celebration, which grew to an all-day event full of festivities.
As a community centered around its rich heritage, the festival has served as a homecoming for generations of people.
For Dwain Pianalto, Lezley Ceola Brinegar, Pattie Franco Main and Kevin Maestri, descendants of the Italian immigrants, the Grape Festival was an integral part of growing up, and it remains a family tradition.
"It's been a huge part of my life," Pianalto says.
They each helped out in a variety of ways, whether it was working in the dining room to wait on festivalgoers during the spaghetti dinners or picking up trash in the mornings in exchange for free carnival tickets.
While Tontitown's grape industry has declined over the years, and the festival no longer centers so much around grapes, it continues to serve as a remembrance of the town's heritage.
Walking through the local cemetery, Main and Pianalto say you can see the names of those who spent numerous years volunteering at the festival. Main's mother passed away last year, but she volunteered until she was 81. Pianalto's mother is 81, and she continues to volunteer.
Now, they all agree the festival has become something much larger than the community picnic it once was. The community itself is more diverse, the church has grown and changed, and volunteers serve thousands of spaghetti dinners.
This year, the festival will kick off Aug. 6 and last through Aug. 10. In addition to the famous spaghetti dinners, there will be a carnival and live entertainment. Parking and admission are free, and carnival armbands cost $20-$25.
Main says the nightly entertainment is wonderful, especially because it's free. In addition to local bands, the festival now welcomes bigger acts, such as The Reeves Brothers, who will be performing this year. Before her "American Idol" days, Brinegar says Carrie Underwood even made an appearance.
The 121st Queen Concordia will be crowned Aug. 9. She will end the festival with a grand prize giveaway, which festivalgoers can enter by paying $1 per ticket entry or $5 for six tickets.
Spaghetti dinners will be served from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 8-10, and they include a pile of spaghetti, fried chicken, salad, rolls and Concord grapes. The cost for adults is $12 and for children 10 and younger, $6.
Volunteers use recipes passed down through generations to make countless gallons of sauce and hundreds of pounds of pasta each year for the dinners. Brinegar says stirring the tank of sauce requires standing on a chair with a large paddle. Preparation for each night is an all-day group effort, with some volunteers arriving as early as 8 a.m. to begin working.
"It's like a little bitty beehive," Pianalto says.
Regardless of the many hours of hard work it takes to make the festival a success, everyone agrees the people and the fun are worth it. The festival provides a chance to catch up with each other.
"We visit and laugh, and you're all talking and working," Brinegar say. "It's a lot of fun."
You don't have to be Italian to take part in the fun. Brinegar, who continues to volunteer each year with her family, says anyone who wants to help is always welcome.
Proceeds from the festival continue to support the local church, as they always have. The money helped construct a new building for the church about 30 years ago, and it also helps cover the cost of operations during the year, Pianalto says.
Whether it's the food or the fun that draws you in, the Tontitown community works hard to ensure the tradition is a hit each year. Pianalto says it's even better than Christmas, and Main says some people plan their vacation time around the festival each year.
"It's amazing how it does come together," Pianalto says.
NAN What's Up on 08/04/2019