Little Italy was founded on December 23rd, 1915 by a group of Italian immigrants who had originally settled in Chicago and northern Michigan during the early part of the 20th Century. Little Italy was the last Catholic immigrant colony in Arkansas and is situated in eastern Perry County near Little Rock. Arkansas Farms Company advertised in Chicago newspapers that farms of forty would be sold for $10.00 an acre. When the opportunity to own land in Arkansas was presented, the five original families (Busato, Perrini, Belotti, Granato, and Segalla) decided raising their children in a rural, agricultural setting would be better than in the big cities where crime and overcrowded conditions were commonplace. The land they bought had originally been part of the initial land grant of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. The land's ownership then went to the Fourche River Lumber Company and eventually to the Arkansas Farms Company. Originally named "Alta Villa" meaning high place, the new community situated in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains reminded the Italians of their mountainous homeland. During the next decade, 10 more Italian families joined the community.
These European Italians were deeply rooted in their Catholic faith, but there was no local church to attend Mass. Responding to this need, Bishop John B. Morris of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock approved the founding of a new parish in 1922 named St. Francis of Assisi Church. The original wooden structure was a Catholic church purchased in Ola and moved 50 miles to Little Italy. In 1969, it was replaced with a modern brick structure. The church and hall today still serve as the community's focal point for local parish and community events.
The conditions of the land and climate were amenable to growing grapes. The Italians developed a thriving wine industry during the early days of the town. With a population of less than 100, the community boasted four bonded wineries by 1920: Segalla Winery, Balsam Winery, Solda and Vaccari Winery, and Ghidotti Winery. Prohibition in 1919 threatened to shutdown wine production, but many of the Italians who relied on the industry to make a decent living continued to sell their grapes by the basket to stores in Little Rock but also illegally as wine and bootleg whiskey. When prohibition ended and wineries resumed in the 1930s, hundreds of acres of vineyards were in full production. By 1942, diseased grapes and lack of profit forced the vineyards to close and caused workers to seek employment elsewhere. Today, Italian descendants continue the tradition of growing grapes for wine mostly for hobby and enjoyment.
please visit The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Dorer, Christopher A. Boy the Stories I Could Tell: A Narrative History of the Italians of Little Italy, Arkansas. Winfield, KS: Central Plains Book Manufacturing Co., 2002.
Woods, James M. Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. Little Rock: August House, 1993.