ROLAND, Ark. – Little Italy, Arkansas, which is about 20 minutes from Little Rock, has an interesting tale regarding its part in Arkansas history. The Little Italy Arkansas Heritage Museum tells the story of this pioneering community first established as Alta Villa, the “high place,” by Italian immigrants in 1915.
“Little Italy is unique in that it is Central Arkansas’s only Italian enclave,” said museum chief curator Chris Dorer, who is a native of the small community. “If you visit major cities throughout the country, they have Little Italys. Little Rock was still enough of a draw at the turn of the 20th century to bring this group of Italians here from the midwest. They started out mostly in Chicago after immigrating. The goal of the museum is to let people know about this really captivating piece of history.”
The story of these pioneering immigrants establishing a community in what at the time was essentially still Arkansas wilderness is as intriguing as the role Little Italy played during Prohibition.
The region’s landscape and growing conditions reminded the immigrants of their homelands of northern Italy and conditions were ripe for vineyards. The community soon became home to enough acres of grapes for four wineries. The most common variety of wine produced was Concord grape wine, which was sweet.
During Prohibition, which first began in 1920, Little Italy’s winemakers provided the rare item of a safe and reliable source of alcohol for the area, which was rich with bootleggers. At that time throughout the country, it was unfortunately common for people to die from alcohol poisoning from drinking what in many instances was alcohol made of questionable ingredients.
Though the community was small, less than 100, it had a big impact in the region and was a popular destination for Central Arkansans to visit, including politicians. In addition to the wineries, there were also two beer establishments, a dance hall, and bocce courts. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, the four wineries in town were in full force production. Along with wine, the grapes were also sold to grocery stores in Little Rock.
However, in the 1950s the vineyards took a major blow when disease hit and spread through the grape vines. Very few plants survived resulting in an end to the wineries. Yet, this intriguing slice of history still lives on, as well as the community.
Many descendants of the original families still live within the community and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, which was built when the immigrants first came here to pay homage to their strong faith, remains a foundation for the community. The church has hosted an annual Italian festival since the late 1920s. An Enchanting Evening, which serves as a wedding venue, opened in the early 2000s and currently has a licensed winery in Little Italy, the first to operate there since the 1950s.
The Little Italy Arkansas Heritage Museum is located at 33615 Hwy. 300 Roland (Little Italy). The hours are Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. and by appointment.
The museum is a project of the Little Italy Arkansas Heritage Society. Other nearby attractions include Pinnacle Mountain State Park at 11901 Pinnacle Valley Road in Little Rock and River Bottom Winery at BoBrook Farms in Roland. The popular annual Wye Mountain Daffodil Festival also takes place nearby each spring. For more information on the museum, visit littleitalymuseum.org.
Story by: Zoie Clift, travel writer, Arkansas Tourism