Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Father Bandini, Tontitown, and the Establishment of a New Winegrowing Center

After doing a little bit of reading on this subject, again I have the overwhelming feeling that I’m just not able to even remotely do it justice in this small entry. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: Eventually we need to produce a series of documentaries on some of these stories. Father Bandini’s life would make a great movie as well. I notice recently that the little-known cable channel called the Hallmark Channel now produces movies, along with other cable channels like the USA or TNT networks. That’s another possibility to look into in time. Catholic institutions may be interested in investing in this particular project as well.


Father Pietro Bandini was born on March 31, 1852, in Forli, which is in the Romagna region of modern Italy. Little is known about Bandini’s family, described as of the upper class and refined. After many years of Jesuit education, Father Bandini joined the priesthood in 1877 and served in various locations in France and Italy. In 1882, he was sent to the United States, beginning a long period of service to American Catholics, Italian immigrants, and American Indians in New York City and the Montana Territory.

In 1896, Father Bandini requested that he be assigned as chaplain for a colony of Italian immigrants being enlisted by Austin Corbin, a wealthy New York industrialist, to work the land on his Arkansas plantation at Sunnyside (Chicot County).

The first group of Italians came to the United States aboard the ‘Chateau Vquen’ and docked at the port of New Orleans on November, 26, 1895, arriving at Sunnyside later that month. Bandini himself arrived in Sunnyside in January 1897 with a second group of Italian immigrants traveling by railway from New York. Upon arriving in Sunnyside, Father Bandini was faced with overwhelming problems. Over 125 people of the original 100 Italian families died of malaria—contaminated water, poor sanitation, mosquitoes, and the climate contributed to disease.

Austin Corbin lost his life in a buggy accident in June 1896; the new owners, uninterested in the welfare of the Italian immigrants, failed to improve the unhealthy conditions. A few families with enough money returned to Italy. Poverty forced the rest to remain, and they turned to Bandini for survival. He realized that Sunnyside was not the place for his people. This opportunity to test his theory of placing Italian immigrants in an environment similar to that of their homeland could only improve the lives of his countrymen.

Bandini had previously traveled through the Ozark Plateau, where he found land rather like the homeland of these immigrants, with 1,500-foot elevations, a healthful climate, and passable soil. In January 1898, Bandini returned to northwest Arkansas and found 800 acres of farmland for sale. Before he could purchase the land, forty families from Sunnyside arrived, and the owner increased the asking price of eight dollars an acre to fifteen dollars an acre. Father Bandini complied; thus was Tontitown founded.

During their first winter, the settlers lived in deserted farm buildings, surviving on rabbit, pasta, and polenta, a hearty dish made with cornmeal and water. Father Bandini put an abandoned schoolhouse to use as a school and place for church services. He divided the land into parcels of ten acres, and a random drawing provided a fair distribution of the land.

In the spring, the immigrants planted vegetable gardens, and family vineyards providing them with vegetables and grapes for wine and jelly. Under the leadership of Father Bandini, these vineyards were expanded into a commercial venture. Tontitown’s grape industry changed the face of northwest Arkansas.

Tontitown prospered and, by 1905, was known as the perfect example of colonization. That same year, the Italian ambassador of Washington DC, Baron E. Mayor des Planches, came for a visit. Surprised by the beauty and prosperity of Tontitown, he asked, “What has done it?” “It’s Father Bandini here and his people,” a local citizen replied.

Bandini prepared a pamphlet titled “Tontitown, Arkansas, the World’s Ideal Vineyard” for the Kansas City and Memphis Railway Company, which distributed it throughout the country, bringing more Italian families to settle in Tontitown.

In 1911, Bandini returned to Italy. Pope Pius X and the Queen Mother Margherita, widow of King Umberto, king of Sardinia and the first king of Italy, pledged to work to change the way immigration was conducted, promising to adopt Father Bandini’s methods of colonization. Bandini received a medal from the Italian government, a gold chalice and a set of red vestments from the pope, along with a second set of white vestments from the Queen Mother Margherita.

Father Pietro Bandini is most widely remembered in Arkansas for the 1898 founding of Tontitown (Washington County), located in the northwest corner of the state, which he named after Henry de Tonti. Every year, Tontitown sponsors the big ‘Tontitown Grape Festival’ (109 years now) in honor of Father Bandini, the original settlement, and grape plantation. The Italian community of Tontitown is listed at 563 today.


For more reading on this subject, see the following links:

Pietro Bandini (Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

A History of Wine in America (The Southwest; the South; Other States)

Tontitown, Arkansas History

Arkansas' Little Italy (AmericanProfile.com)

Tontitown Grape Festival