OUT WEST ON ARKANSAS 300 from Little Rock, past the eastern shore of Lake Maumelle and under the stands of tall Southern pines, up the steep switchbacks and down a rough-hewn country lane in Pulaski County’s Little Italy, sits the home John Dal Santo built with his own two hands. It’s white and quaint with a gravel ring driveway shaded by a great tree in its center.
Despite a sign warning of the guard dogs’ ferocity, the two white-and-brown pups that greet me as I step from my car into that tree’s shade seem eager friends, and as I make their acquaintance, John steps out on the porch and beckons me in out of the July heat. He is still tall, despite his 95 years. His hair is silver on gray, his face friendly and his blue eyes bright and impish. There’s nothing but white socks on his feet.
Introductions are made. Besides the overly friendly guard dogs, there’s Olga, his wife of 73 years—of the first generation born to the Italian immigrants who settled Little Italy, she’s the last still living here—and Kristy Eanes, his grandniece and co-chair of the community’s incorporation task force. Olga’s questions are rapid-fire. Have you eaten? Would you like a beer? Or perhaps a glass of wine? A little food would be no trouble. We compromise on a glass of water, and all settle into our places in the comfortably cluttered living room.
“So you want the story of how I ended up here?” John asks. I nod and offer an eager grin. One hundred years after its founding, Little Italy is in the thick of its fight for township, a story that’s already been well-covered in the local media and held only a passing interest for me—that is until one night a couple of weeks before, when a friend tipped me off to a story. It was a story of love and one man’s journey to find—and fight for—the American dream, and I’d come to hear it for myself.
“Well,” he begins, “back in 1939, that’s when I met her.”
IT’S NEARLY WINTER in Chicago, and a 19-year-old John Dal Santo, tall and lean, is working in a factory making radio speakers for 43 cents an hour. It is a Friday when an old friend of his father’s comes to the door. The friend’s name is Brassale. He’s recently bought a motor court in California, and he has a simple question for John on his lips.
“Son,” he says, “are you going to stay here your whole life and never know what outside of Chicago is like? Why don’t you go with me?” John looks to his father, Giacomo, better known as Jack. His father and Brassale had known each other in the old country, and it was Brassale—a man who knew people—who a little over a decade ago helped Jack and his children become American citizens.
“You’re old enough to go on your own,” Jack says.
And with that, it’s settled: John will take the weekend to pack. At daybreak Monday morning, he and Brassale will head west to seek their fortunes. Except Mother Nature has other plans. John wakes Sunday morning to find Brassale standing over him. A storm’s coming, and they have to leave right now if they want to beat it.
John packs quickly, but it’s already too late. Just outside of St. Louis, the storm’s so bad they slide and skid and spin right into a ditch. They learn from the radio that famed Route 66 is blocked, snowbound. Brassale thinks they should head south and take the southern route.
John couldn’t care less. “You’re the driver. I don’t know nothing about it.”
It’s not until they near Little Rock on U.S. 67 that Brassale remembers, Well, wait a second. I know some folks that live around here in a place they call Little Italy, and it would be rude to come so close and not drop in for a visit.
The only direction they have is to look out for a sign that says John Segalla Winery, and it’s 10 p.m. by the time they find it—they’d been sidetracked by a drunk ferry operator. Even at that late hour, they’re treated to a supper of eggs and salami and a place to lay their heads before taking to the road the next morning.
And that could have been that, the visit nothing more than a footnote in John’s life. Except it wasn’t.
When they reach Arkansas 9 outside of Hot Springs the next day, the old man stops the car dead in its tracks.
“I am going back,” he says. “There’s another gentleman up there, and I know if he finds out I was in town and didn’t see him, he will be mad at me forever.”
And that’s when John meets her. Or, really, it’s when Brassale meets her. They’d been driving back to see his friend Balsam, and after dinner, the two older men leave John at the house to pick up some pipe tobacco at the local honky-tonk. There’s a girl there, barefoot and beautiful, and Brassale can’t help but play matchmaker.
“I have got a young man that would love to meet a girl like you,” he tells her.
“I met a nice girl down there,” he tells John when he returns.
John doesn’t believe him. A nice girl in this place? But he straightens out his tie and buttons up the $60 suit (“$60! Can you believe it?”) Brassale loaned him just the same. And sure enough, the woman who will become his wife is sitting on the porch of the house across the street from the bar, still barefoot because she didn’t believe Brassale either.
They listen to the radio in the backroom, and she plays piano as the adults toss back glasses of local wine and John tries to impress her with big-city life.
“You know, we’ve got a dance hall,” he says, playing the city slicker, not knowing there’s a honky-tonk across the street or that her parents own it.
“Well, we have one, too,” she retorts. “You want to go over there?”
It’s only a little room, somewhere between 14 and 16 feet on each side, but it has a jukebox, and she knows how to make it play for free. They dance, and they dance, all the while knowing he’ll be gone come morning.
“SO THAT’S HOW WE MET,” he tells me, though it’s obvious the story is far from over.
At some point during his tale, John leans back and casually throws his leg over the armrest of his maroon chair. I’d seen his age as he talked before, but in this gesture—at least for a moment—he’s young again, his posture relaxed and comfortable in the way of a young man who has not yet been weighed down by life. Who has not yet seen war.
And then, slowly, it fades but doesn’t completely disappear. Once you’ve seen the true shape of something, it’s easy to see it even when it’s hidden.
As I sit and listen to John and Olga talk, it’s hard for me to imagine that youthful courtship, not just because of their age but because the landscape where they met no longer exists. Today, the land is thick with pine and cedar, but once this whole area was nothing but grapevines. And before that, it was practically nothing at all.
Originally granted to the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad Co., the land that has become Little Italy was clear-cut by its next owner, the Fourche River Lumber Co., and was later sold for $10 an acre by the Arkansas Farms Co. through advertisements in Chicago newspapers. What the five original families found in 1915 when they packed up everything they owned and moved south was a treeless, barren mountain landscape not unlike its namesake. Originally called Alta Villa, Little Italy wasn’t much good for farming, but grapes took to it, and soon the rocky hilltops were terraced over in every direction with vineyards. During Prohibition, the townsfolk famously survived by selling wine and moonshine on the black market, and soon after the sale of alcohol became legal again, four bonded wineries would open.
“Her dad and that gentleman I was with,” John continues, “they got intoxicated, and in the morning he couldn’t drive … which was fine by me.
“We slept over at your house,” he says to Olga, and she nods in agreement as she’s done throughout the story as if to say, Yes, that’s how I remember it, too. “We talked another day. But there was no phone in those days, and I went on to California.”
It would be a long time before they would walk among the grapevines together again.
THREE DAYS IN CALIFORNIA. That’s all it takes for John to get a job offer. The only problem is that it’s not in California. John’s been staying with Brassale while he looks for a job, but the job finds him when a friend of Brassale drops by.
“You got a job for this young man?” Brassale asks.
“Yeah,” says the old friend, “but it’s in Arizona.”
Turns out it’s construction work, a year-long gig installing terrazzo flooring, which John knows less than nothing about.
“You’ll learn,” the man says.
“What’s it pay?”
“Oh, about $1 an hour.”
Well, that’s a heckuva lot better than 43 cents an hour.
“I’m ready,” he says.
And he is. But he can’t quite shake that barefooted girl from Arkansas. The whole year he’s in the desert, they’re exchanging letters, and as the job finishes up, a co-worker tells him he needs to check the classifieds. There’s some guy who needs a driver for a trip to Chicago.
The man with the car wants to know just who John is and who his people are in the Windy City. John passes the test, and now it is his turn to ask the questions. But he’s only got one, and really, it’s more of a demand.
“I’ll drive you on one condition,” he says. “I want to stop in Arkansas.”
“Well, I want to stop in Arkansas, too!” the man says.
It turns out the man’s got arthritis and moved to the desert thinking the dry air would do him good. It didn’t. In fact, it made his condition worse, so he’s headed back to Chicago but wants to take advantage of the waters in Hot Springs along the way.
The man drops John off in Little Italy and turns back southwest with the understanding that they’ll meet up again in a week at the post office.
And that’s how John and Olga’s relationship will go—a week here and there as John helps friends drive across the country, always with an agreement to stop off in Arkansas so he can see his barefooted girl. They pick grapes together and hide behind vines to steal kisses out of sight of her watchful older sisters.
By now, John’s working in a defense plant in Indiana, and though he and Olga have only spent a total of three weeks and two days in each other’s company over the year and a half since they met, he writes her about getting married. The letter he receives in response isn’t from Olga, but her mother.
If you want my daughter, he reads, you have to come get her. She’s not going nowhere.
When the plant superintendent won’t give him any time off to get married (There’s a war on! You just had a week off a month ago!), John tells him to cut him his last paycheck because he’s quitting.
“I’ll turn you in to the draft board!” the superintendent threatens.
But John doesn’t care. He’s going to marry his barefooted girl.
And that’s just what he does. But fate conspires to keep them apart for longer yet.
ONE DAY IN ARKANSAS. That’s all it takes for John to get a job as a welder at a Missouri Pacific Railroad garage. One month is all it takes for some men in suits to show up asking after him.
“What do you fellows want?” he says from under the bus he’s working on.
One of them pulls out his badge and flashes it beneath the rig.
“What do you want with me ?” John asks in a panic.
They want to know why he didn’t notify the draft board he’d quit the defense plant. He didn’t know he had to, he says. Since that job in Indiana had supported the war effort, he’d been exempt from the draft. But welding buses back together in Arkansas? Well, that just doesn’t cut it. They strike a deal, and John promises to notify the board that very night, and the men agree not to arrest him.
He’s drafted and on Sept. 11, 1944, is inducted into the army. He leaves his new job at the Little Rock Fire Department to report for training at Camp Robinson. A lucky break, that, because Olga is pregnant with their first daughter.
A few months into training, and John’s in trouble and assigned to kitchen patrol. He’s working the mess hall when a lieutenant comes looking for him.
“Dal Santo!” the office shouts. “Come on. You’re wanted in the CP.”
The sergeant in charge tries to protest. “Hey, wait a minute, he’s on KP!”
“Who cares. He’s coming with me.” And you don’t make sergeant by arguing with officers.
At the CP, the command post, they inform him that his wife is in labor and that, if he wants it, he can take a three-day furlough at home. (Sir, yes sir!) But while he’s home looking after his growing family, John’s outfit ships out, and when he returns to camp, he’s told he’ll have to move out with the next batch. But it isn’t all bad news. They give him another three days with Olga and their newborn daughter, Sandy.
He arrives in the European theater on March 7, 1945, as a lineman, a dangerous job that involves maintaining the field telephone lines between the headquarters and the front. Just past Metz, France, as the Allies are pursuing the Germans back to their own border, a shell from an 88—the Germans’ infamous anti-tank artillery piece—hits the tank John’s riding on. They find him hours later, knocked out with a dislocated neck and shoulder. The other six men on the tank don’t make it. John spends three weeks in the hospital but won’t ever fully recover.
“You know how to operate a switchboard?” the first sergeant asks when he sees Dal Santo is still suffering from his injuries. It’s a less dangerous job and would be another lucky break, but John admits he doesn’t. “Well, you are going to learn.”
SHE DIDN’T KNOW,” John says in his quiet living room. “I didn’t tell her.”
I see the medal that injury earned on the far wall—a Purple Heart beside a World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal and a Theater Ribbon with two service stars—hanging in a dark wooden shadow box. The memory still gives him fits, especially in the mornings, he’ll tell me later. He’ll wake up crazy, literally jumping out of bed.
“Thinking of all them boys—they were my friends,” he says, emotion thick in his voice. “They were friends, and they left us. They didn’t come home.”
We talk more about the war. He tells how he spent one year, one month and 18 days overseas and some 90 days on the front lines. He tells me how he ended up shaking hands with a Russian lieutenant when the two Allied forces met in Czechoslovakia. How he sent Olga a photo of the historic meeting, but she tore it up in a fit of fear. How the next morning, the Russians were on one side of the road and the Americans the other because the brass set down the law.
And then he leaves the room—he’s got some things he wants to show me—and I am alone with Kristy, his grandniece through Olga’s side of the family. Olga has gone to make lunch for us, despite our feeble protests that she shouldn’t go to so much trouble on our behalf. But there is no denying Italian hospitality.
Suddenly alone, Kristy and I fall to talking about the details of Little Italy’s incorporation. The incorporation hearing before Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde was set to take place the day before our meeting, but Kristy and her fellow organizers, including co-chair and local historian Chris Dorer, had asked for and received an extension late last week.
“I guess the bottom line is that we were needing more time to collect more evidence and information to paint a more accurate and detailed picture of the incorporation,” she tells me.
The main issue at hand is the opposition they face from the likes of Little Rock’s and North Little Rock’s city governments, and most importantly, from Central Arkansas Water (CAW). The utility has been working for years to protect the Lake Maumelle watershed because cleaner water in the primary reservoir means better drinking water at a lower cost for the utility’s 400,000 customers. These efforts led to a 2014 county zoning code that limits the activities permissible in the watershed, protects streams, defines pollution limits for developers and regulates how dense new housing developments can be. If Little Italy wins its incorporation bid, 5,000 acres—25 percent of developable land protected under the zoning code—will no longer be subject to those regulations.
There is room for compromise, but it isn’t likely to happen. In the coming weeks the incorporation task force will reject the two proposals offered up by the utility—one involving dropping the bid in exchange for CAW’s help protecting the area’s history and another requiring 75 percent of the proposed town’s residents to sign a restrictive covenant for their land. Kristy and the rest of the task force will instead offer to lobby Little’s Italy’s first town council to adopt the zoning codes, and if it doesn’t, Judge Hyde could reverse the incorporation. But because future town councils could adopt new zoning codes, CAW won’t just take it on good faith. Especially after many Little Italy residents were vocal in their opposition to the zoning codes during the public meetings leading up to the adoption.
John bounces back into the room. He’s found what he was looking for, and it’s put a smile on his face.
“You want to question me to see if I am an American or not!” he says, and tosses two pieces of paper on the glass coffee table in front of me. One is his father’s Certificate of Naturalization; the other is John’s Certificate of Citizenship, a document he finally received in 1969.
“Can you imagine getting my citizenship paper after all I have been through?” he says, laughing
And he is not just talking about the war—he’s talking about how his family fled fascist Italy for freedom in America when he was a child. He is talking about how that first piece of paper saved his grandfather from Carabinieri, the military police of Italy entrusted with suppressing Mussolini’s political opposition.
IT IS 1928 IN ITALY, and though he is only 8 years old, John is training for war. Two years before, Mussolini’s dictatorship founded a youth organization called the Balilla to indoctrinate the next generation and to make sure the country had fit and able soldiers, and on this day, John’s teacher shows up with a gift: black shirts made of silk, the uniform of the Balilla.
When John goes home for lunch sporting his new black shirt, his grandfather—he’s been looking after John and his older brother and sister while their father, Jack, works in America—burns it in the fireplace in protest. The Carabinieri are there the next day and take his grandfather away in a horse and buggy. But there’s something the military police don’t know. Something even John doesn’t know. Something that happened half a world away in Chicago. Thanks to Brassale, who in those bootlegger days had taken his father to a judge he knew in downtown Chicago, John was an American citizen.
Armed with this knowledge, John’s uncle storms into the town hall where his grandfather is being held. He’s in jail for burning his grandson’s shirt, they explain.
“His grandson!” responds the uncle. “You put him in jail because of his grandson? His grandson is an American!”
They can’t argue with that, so they cut him loose.
When Jack finds out what has transpired in Italy, he starts scraping up all the money he can to bring his children over. His older brother Antonio leaves first and leaves alone. John and his sister, Catherine, both fail the health inspection—she has pink eye, and he has to have surgery for a hernia from the mandatory exercise implemented by the fascist regime. It’s two years before they leave for the States. They are “mailed” to Chicago, a little tag with an address pinned to their cloths, and their dad meets them at the train.
The snow is higher than the fences as they walk to their new home for the first time.
“LET ME TELL YOU. What do you think I came over here for?” John says as we talk of incorporation. “To be free.”
After so long in the past, the conversation has switched to talk of the future. And for John, it seems, Little Italy’s future has been a long time coming. As he and Olga raised their two daughters, and John returned to work as a Little Rock firefighter, then foreman at St. Vincent Hospital, they watched the vines die of disease and the wineries close. They’ve seen the pines grow in their place, changing the look of the town but not its character. They have seen the ever-expanding capital city swallow other small, unincorporated communities whole on its march westward. They’ve seen a small dirt road, carved out of the earth by the hands of the first immigrants, become Arkansas 300.
“If we were to be our own township, we could improve our roads. Did you come up that hill?” John asks me, referring to those quick switchbacks that make up the last section of Arkansas 300 before you enter town. “There have been five people killed on that road since I’ve been here. I tried to get the state and all that to put guard rails on it, but they haven’t. I cannot understand it!”
It is a common refrain among Little Italians. Being as far west as you can go and still be in Pulaski County, they often feel forgotten by county government. Kristy picks up where John leaves off, but where John lets loose a lifetime’s worth of fire in his belly, she has the measured cadence of a politician.
“We are kind of far out here,” she says. “And I know there are a lot of priorities in town, and we understand that. … We just want to be able to have the opportunity to do it ourselves, and to work as a town in getting some things done that we wouldn’t be able to do as a collection of individuals.”
In addition to improved roads and turning some private roads public, there is talk of protected bike lanes along the Arkansas River Trail, tornado sirens and public safety shelters. Just little things at first, she tells me, but then the town can become anything the residents want. And the residents want it. Of the 380 or so people within the proposed boundaries, 220 signed the petition for incorporation, including around 30 new voters Kristy and her team signed up. She takes it as a sign that people here are excited to be involved in the process, to have their voice heard. To be a town.
And there is a fear that if they don’t incorporate now, they’ll lose the chance in the future—and with it, the chance to preserve their identity. Both Kristy and her co-chair, Chris, cite protecting Little Italy from Little Rock’s expansion as the catalyst for the incorporation effort, though incorporation was not their original plan. In 2011, in preparation for St. Francis of Assisi’s ninetieth anniversary the next year, the idea was to found a museum that could preserve the area’s unique heritage, but that would do nothing to preserve the land itself. Plus, individuals aren’t eligible for the grants such a project would require. But becoming a town? Now that could accomplish everything they want and a whole lot more.
Olga comes into the living room. There is no more putting it off. We’re having lunch whether we want to or not. There are fresh tomatoes from a neighbor and Asiago cheese, pork sandwiches and potato chips, breads and sides, and still Olga is concerned it’s not enough.
“Would you like some pickles?” she asks. “I have some more chips. They’re yours if you want them. Beer, wine?”
And slowly I stop being a writer and start being a guest. While John tells me of how his grandfather used to store his milk in a cavern in the mountains above Asiago, Italy, Olga and Kristy catch up on their lives and Kristy’s soon-to-be new home right down the street. We talk of love and John’s secret to a good marriage—how even if he doesn’t think he was wrong, he’ll still apologize because isn’t it fun to make up? We talk of the 88th annual spaghetti dinner coming up in October and how they still use Olga’s recipe for the sauce and how the secret to the sausage is cooking it in wine. We talk of how there is a new commercial winery in Little Italy for the first time in around 60 years. We talk of neighbors and family.
And as John tells me more of his past and Kristy tells me of her dreams for the future, I begin to understand just how deep their roots have grown into these rocky hilltops, and how no matter what happens next, those roots will continue to spread, thick as vines.
Finding acceptance, thanks to a drink. Five years after the first Little Italians terraced the rocky ground and planted row upon row of grapevines, the town’s main source of income became illegal Jan. 17, 1920, when the 18th Amendment went into effect. Losing the ability to make wine—at least legally—could have destroyed the community.
Instead, it saved it.
The five founding families of Little Italy were part of a wave of Catholic and southern European immigrants who made their way into the predominantly Protestant state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Chris Dorer, co-chair of Little Italy’s incorporation task force and the community’s local historian. Needless to say, the tension was thick.
“When the local people first came in contact with [the Italian immigrants], they all assumed they were members of the mafia and things like that,” Dorer says. “They discriminated against them because they were Catholic and all sorts of reasons.”
But there’s nothing like sharing a drink to help make friends, especially when Prohibition has made it illegal. Little Italy continued to make wine, and thanks to local officials who turned a blind eye, it soon became known in the surrounding region as a place to get a bottle of the good stuff that wouldn’t make you sick—or worse yet, put you in the ground.
“People started seeing, ‘Well, hey, these Italian Catholics aren’t so bad,’” Dorer explains. “So by doing the illegal thing, by selling this bootlegged wine and liquor, they actually gained a lot of acceptance in central Arkansas.”