One of the characteristics I love most about Arkansas is the fact that things tie together easily because there are so few of us. There are two degrees of separation among those who were born and raised here: If you don't know the person with whom you're visiting, you'll learn within five minutes that you know a lot of the same people.
The ties that bind us together were never more evident than on a Monday night late last month as I emceed the annual induction ceremony for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. Two of the four finalists in the Food-Themed Event of the Year category were the Tontitown Grape Festival in northwest Arkansas and the Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church's annual spaghetti dinner in southeast Arkansas. Even though the events take place in opposite corners of the state, they're joined at the hip from a history standpoint.
Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897. That made Sunnyside the largest colony of Catholic immigrants in the state. New York businessman Austin Corbin had purchased more than 10,000 acres in Chicot County and established the plantation.
"Under the auspices of the Sunnyside Co., Corbin consolidated several plantations and named the property after an area plantation that dated back to the 1830s," Jamie Metrailer writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "When difficulties arose in finding laborers to work these cotton fields, including a stint with convict labor, Corbin made an arrangement with Prince Ruspoli, mayor of Rome, for Italian immigrants to farm the property. Ruspoli and Corbin arranged for the immigration of 100 Italian families annually for five consecutive years.
"Corbin provided these Italian immigrants with 12½ acres of land [per family] with housing. The land and houses 'were payable over 21 years at an annual interest rate of 5 percent of the unpaid balance.' These terms were appealing to potential immigrants. Italy's economy was then doing poorly, in part from the government's rush to industrialize rural sectors of the country. The first party of more than 500 Italian Catholics reached Sunnyside Plantation in December 1895, and a similar number reached Chicot County in January 1897. Though the colony was able to build a school, church and railroad connecting the various portions of the plantation, the Italian immigrants experienced many problems ... ."
Some of the immigrants knew nothing about farming. And since they came from different parts of Italy, they didn't work together well. Malaria was rampant in those swamps of southeast Arkansas.
Corbin died in a buggy accident in 1896. By 1898, O.B. Crittenden & Co. had taken over the plantation. That year 40 families followed Father Pietro Bandini to northwest Arkansas, where he founded the community of Tontitown. Bandini had been born in 1852 in the Romagna region of Italy. He studied in Monaco beginning in 1869 and began teaching in September 1874 at a Jesuit seminary at Aix-en-Provence in France. He was ordained as a priest in September 1877. In 1882, he was sent to the Jesuits' Rocky Mountain Mission in the Montana Territory.
Bandini later established St. Raphael's Italian Benevolent Society, which was to assist Italian immigrants in New York. After five years, Bandini requested to be assigned to the plantation in Arkansas. He arrived at Sunnyside in January 1897. The priest was greeted by contaminated water, mosquitoes and poor sanitation. Bandini felt that the owners who had replaced Corbin cared nothing about the Italians.
Bandini had traveled through the Ozarks and found land there to be like that in Italy. He headed to northwest Arkansas and found 800 acres for sale. The families from Sunnyside soon followed. The priest returned to Italy for a short time in 1911 and received a medal from the Italian government. He died in Little Rock in January 1917 at St. Vincent Infirmary.
About 35 immigrant families remained at Sunnyside during the 1890s. The Italian influence has remained strong. On the first Sunday of March, the spaghetti dinner is held. The event this past Sunday was the 109th. All the food is homemade. Almost 3,600 meatballs are prepared each year. Recipes have been handed down through the generations.
According to a story in the Arkansas Catholic: "In January, there's bread baking day; over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air-dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of 3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early as 7 a.m. for takeout orders."
Up in northwest Arkansas, meanwhile, the Italian immigrants began holding grape festivals in the late 1890s. There were booths, games, dances and plenty of food. After a few years, the festival began drawing people from surrounding communities. In 1932, the festival expanded to three days and a queen, Albina Montegani, was selected. That was also the year that members of the parish at St. Joseph Catholic Church began serving spaghetti dinners to the public. Mary Maestri, who started a famous restaurant at Tontitown, met her husband Aldo at one of the festivals.
Each August, thousands of pounds of pasta are served as part of the more than 10,000 meals purchased by those attending the Tontitown Grape Festival.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 03/07/2020