On Saturday we went to Tontitown for the 111th Annual Grape Festival. Tontitown is a little community about 12 miles northwest of Fayetteville that was settled by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. When I first moved to Fayetteville, everyone I met asked me if I was from Tontitown. I learned quickly that Italian last names are rare here, unless you’re a descendant of a Tontitown settler. Tontitown is very proud of its heritage and strives to keep its traditions alive, through annual events such as the fall Polenta Smear and the summer Grape Festival .
As with all local fairs, the Grape Festival features a midway of sketchy rides, a visual feast of mullets, a section of arts and crafts tents selling Confederate flag bikinis, and a string of overpriced junk food vendors. Paolo nearly broke my heart when he opted for a corn dog instead of the wildly popular spaghetti dinner, but that’s his father in him. Throughout his boyhood, Sam didn’t miss a Missouri state fair, and the smell of carnie sweat and corn dogs (to be eaten on the fourth day of the fair, never earlier, allowing the grease enough time to reach the right level of putrid) always puts a certain twinkle in his eye.
We ate over in the park so the boys could play on the multitude of playground equipment. There are half a dozen different play areas in the park, with lots of old-school gear not found in parks anymore. As we spun on the merry-go-round, I shared my story of how I got my worst scar from a merry-go-round on my elementary school playground. I was pushing it around and didn’t clear the edge when I jumped on, which left me with a two-inch long scar on my left shin. The next play area over, I described how I was nearly crippled as a child when a mean see-saw partner slid off the back of the seat, leaving me to plummet to the ground, crushing my feet under the seat. I can still feel the shock of that pain traveling like lightning from my ankles to my waist. It occurred to me there is a reason those particular playground artifacts are not in use anymore.
After last year’s Grape Festival, I decided to inquire about volunteering at the local museum because I admired the community and really missed having a museum, no matter how small, in my life. I now serve on the Board of Directors and have befriended all those wonderful people whose last names end in vowels. They believe I have a lot to offer their small museum, and I am hopeful that I can prove them right.
As we drove home, faces and fingers sticky with grape ice cream, I reflected upon past Grape Festivals we’ve attended, with Paolo growing from a toddler to a schoolboy, and Gianluca, first just a bump (of freakish proportions, due to arrive a week later), and now nearly ready for the rides. I pictured our family coming back to Tontitown year after year to enjoy their tradition, and to make it our own. I can honestly say that being a small part of this kind and welcoming Italian-American community makes it even easier to embrace a long, long stay in Northwest Arkansas.