Tradition fuels one of Arkansas’ grapest festivals

Those passing through Tontitown in late July will be met with the aroma of homemade pasta, spaghetti sauce and tradition wafting from the kitchen in the parish hall of St. Joseph Church in preparation for the historic Grape Festival.

Steeped in Italian heritage, the festival began as a picnic of thanksgiving for immigrant families who had survived the cold winter months. Today, 118 years later, it has become the largest festival in northwest Arkansas, still hosted by the roughly 300 families in the parish.

“You just need to experience it,” said St. Joseph parishioner Charlotte Piazza. “There’s lines that wait to get in and to be seated and to get your dinners and it’s always good. There’s folks around that talk to you and it’s such good fellowship.”

“I think it’s the communities getting together and everybody working together and seeing the people who came from far away … they come back to their home.” Charlotte Piazza

The five-day festival, Aug. 9-13, draws two types of crowds — those who hunger for food, rides, prizes and fellowship and those who hunger to keep the traditions of the Grape Festival alive by volunteering.

During the first or second week in July, volunteers begin making homemade spaghetti, which is a two-week process between making and packaging it. Festival chairman Chris Martini said around 3,000 pounds of pasta is made. Homemade sauce — about 400 gallons — and rolls are made during the week of the festival for a fresh taste. Fried chicken, salad and water, tea and coffee are also served.

The amount of food may sound unreal, but so are the crowds — more than 100,000 visitors throughout the week, Martini said.

Dinners are served Thursday, Friday and Saturday with “around 2,400 dinners a night,” he said.

Meals cost $12 for adults and children 12 and under are $6. Post Familie Vineyards & Winery in Altus and Tontitown Winery also sell cups of wine for festival goers to enjoy with their meal.

“To-go” one-pound bags of spaghetti are $3 apiece and a variety of grape bunches are sold by Ranalli Farms in Springdale. Parking and entertainment are free and while the carnival rides and dinners turn a profit, all money raised goes to St. Joseph Church.

“It kind of separates us from other fairs in that fact, that it is volunteer and it means so much more,” Martini said.

Back in the vineyards

About 11 miles from what is now Fayetteville, Italian immigrants from Genoa, Italy, came founded and settled in Tontitown in 1895, fleeing hardships like food shortages and political unrest, according to

Father Pietro Bandini, who became the town’s first mayor, came to help Italian immigrants. The first Grape Festival was held in 1898.

“It was a one-day event and the ladies just gathered what they had, most of it was stewed chicken … It wasn’t until 1913 that the celebration went to August during the grape harvest and it was still a one day event. It wasn’t until 1932 that it became a three-day event,” said Piazza, 77, who stepped down this year as curator of Tontitown Historical Museum that she and her husband Henry, a first-generation Italian American, founded in 1986.

The festival has always relied on the success of volunteers. Piazza and fellow parishioner Jettie Franco, who both started volunteering about 60 years ago, remember the dinners were held in the school basement, with dancing and “begging.” 

“The ladies would cook the spaghetti and fry the chickens in skillets. I remember one night the first night when we sold 200 dinners that was some success,” Franco, 82, said. “Of course, back then, they had the begging committee,” going to parishioners or neighbors’ homes “begging” for tomato sauce or chickens to donate to the dinner. “After a few years, they cut that out.”

In the late 1960s, the parish hall was built where the dinners could be served. The festival is still located on the church grounds, Martini said.

Jettie’s husband of 62 years, Roy Franco, was born and raised in Tontitown, and like Henry Piazza, his family was one of the original settlers.

“See, I’ve been here all my life. I was probably about 5 or 6,” when he first went to the Grape Festival. “I worked festival at about 12. We had to clean … now we have about 50 kids go by and pick up the trash.”

In the 1950s, the festival also included a parade and spreading the word wasn’t as simple as a Facebook post. Caravans traveled to nearby towns telling everyone of the festival and hanging posters, Jettie Franco said.

“I rode in the parade, it was no big deal,” Roy said. “I had a couple of donkeys — we rode on them.”

But the festival delivered more than just fond memories for the Francos.

“Our daughter was born the night of the Grape Festival, August the 19th — she was early, 5 weeks,” Jettie said of her daughter Cammie, who died in 1991 at 34 years old. “I was sitting on the school steps and my water broke. My daughter was Grape Festival queen, the 75th one and both granddaughters have been.”

Growing like a vine

Beyond the arts and crafts, the Grapes 5K walk/run, a truck giveaway and an old-fashioned “grape stomp” for children, the Grape Festival is really about people — from the crowning of Queen Concordia to reconnecting with old friends.

“I think it’s the communities getting together and everybody working together and seeing the people who came from far away like California and Washington State that come every year … they come back to their home,” Piazza said.

The Piazzas and the Francos are just two families who have dedicated a portion of their summer for decades to the success of the Grape Festival. But it’s tales of dedication every year that are passed on through the generations to keep the festival going — like this year, when Roy’s truck wouldn’t start and he had to ride his tractor to the parish hall to help make spaghetti.

“They said, ‘What would you have done if your tractor didn’t start? He said, ‘I guess I would have ridden my lawn mower,’” his wife said.

It’s that kind of drive and faith that’s made the Grape Festival a Catholic tradition in Tontitown.

“It proves to you what their faith means to them, from generations to generations that the families have passed that faith onto their children to have this festival last this many years,” Jettie Franco said.

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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