Italian immigrants left Genoa, Italy because increasingly high taxes, overcrowding, food shortage, political unrest and unpopular colonial wars were terrorizing their lives. They came to America to begin again.
Meanwhile, Father Pietro Bandini had been sent to America to help these immigrants. Bandini was of good birth and highly educated. He was passionately involved in the plight of improving the lives of his fellow Italians. He convinced 18 families to wait while he secured land. He found a farm near Springdale that an American, William Woods, was selling for two or three dollars an acre because he couldn’t cultivate the stony land. The Giovanni Battista Bariola family was the first to follow Father Bandini in January 1898. By March, at least 40 families had arrived. Father Bandini was officially appointed pastor. They named the colony Tontitown for Henri De Tonti, the first Italian and LaSalle’s Chief Lieutenant, who had established the first white colony in Arkansas.
August found the Italians with a harvest to celebrate with a mass of Thanksgiving in the little Church. They sang and danced. The women served the tastiest meals their meager provisions would allow. From that first frolic in the woods in 1898 stemmed the Tontitown Festival of today.
Tontitown was incorporated in 1909 and Father Bandini elected mayor. By that time, Italian holdings had increased to over 1400 acres. Tragedy struck in December 1916, when Father Bandini had a stroke. Although it was thought that he was improving, he died on January 2, 1917, and was buried in Tontitown. He was missed both in the Tontitown people’s homes and church lives, as well as their business councils. As an earlier colonist once wrote, “He had ruled us with a double glove, through which we felt the iron finger.”
The St. Joseph parish encouraged their young people to consider vocation to the church. The Sisters of Mercy had returned in 1924 to administer the highly respected St. Joseph convent and school. In January 1927, the building and musical instruments were destroyed by fire. Immediately the parish began rebuilding and completed it by September. A few years later, it became Tontitown Public School, where elementary through 9th grade were taught regular curriculum by the nuns. Tontitown had been holding their Grape Festivals for approximately 25 years now. It had grown to include Holy Mass, booths, games, as well as carnivals provided by White River Red, a dance, sometimes a pageant, and of course that wonderful Italian food. This festival began to draw a crowd from surrounding communities and was quite well known. In 1932, Tontitown was again the only community providing a Grape Festival. That year they expanded to a three-day event, and for the first time in their festival, selected a Queen by vote, Albina Montegani. This was also the year that Tontitown began to serve those famous Italian Spaghetti dinners to the public.
St. Joseph's was dedicated October 27, 1944 while Rev. L.H. Schaefer was pastor. Tontitown was blessed again with prosperity as new gas wells were discovered and other businesses
Late in 1950, a new, modern fully air-conditioned building was completed that housed Tontitown Mercantile and the post office. At that time, the Tontitown Post Office had the distinction of being the only air-conditioned and international unit in the state.
Sixty years after Father Bandini came to the Ozarks, the town chartered a Knights of Columbus Council named in his memory. Tontitown notoriety was quite evident when CBS came to town in August of 1971. They filmed parts of the Grape Festival including grape judging, Gov. Dale Bumpers crowning Queen Concordia, and spaghetti dinners. Well known restaurants, Mary Maestri’s and Venesian Inn, were thriving. Other businesses included: construction companies, carpet, tile, marble, trucking service, and auto repair stations. An industrial park had started on the south side of Hwy. 412.
Tontitown is a thriving community with a rich heritage and strong spirit. The St. Joseph’s parishioners built a new, larger church dedicated in October 1994. The Italian Immigrant, a bronze statue honoring our Italian ancestors and Father Bandini, was placed in front of City Hall and dedicated in 1998. A new City Hall was built in 2018, which includes city services and the Tontitown Police Department. It has a beautiful city park including an improved ball field, playground equipment, and to preserve their Italian Heritage, a Bocci court. There is also a 1/3 Mile Walking Trail around the outer edge of the park. Businesses continue to prosper on the north and south sides of Hwy 412. And, in 2004, growth and annexation doubled the size of Tontitown. The Italian Americans of this small city are very proud of their 122-year heritage. They know they have the respect of people both here and in their mother country. They have always overcome adversity with integrity, intelligence and hope for a greater future. They are sure to grow and prosper during the next 100 years.
Visit our Tontitown Historical Museum located at 237 E Henri De Tonti Blvd. for more interesting history and artifacts.