October 26, 2010 > History: Chautauqua
The Chautauqua movement began at New York's Lake Chautauqua in 1874 as a summer camp for families that promised "education and uplift." Founded by a businessman and a Methodist minister, the program first focused on Sunday school teacher training, but quickly involved all faiths and expanded its scope. It was the first to offer correspondence degrees in the United States. Soon independent Chautauqua assemblies sprang up around the country.
Their popularity led to the organization of touring Chautauquas offering informational, entertaining, and inspirational stimulus to rural and small-town America. The touring companies brought speakers, musicians, drama groups, and more, all performing in large tents. The mainstay of Chautauquas were lecturers in cultural, social, and political issues of the day. Thousands would gather for a presentation by William Jennings Bryan. Bands were very popular, opera stars performed, and classic plays and Broadway shows were presented. Many people saw their first movie in one of the tents.
Residents of the Niles area were talking about organizing a Chautauqua Society in the summer of 1891. They may have heard that members of the institution in New York were discussing women's suffrage. There were also several people in the local area interested in the rights of women. Boys in the Printing Club of the Niles Congregational Church distributed cards inviting all who were interested to meet at the parsonage to discuss the formation of a Chautauqua Circle. A number of people responded and organized a local society.
Lida Thane noted in one of her columns that "Mrs. H. A. Mayhew was a leader in the Niles Circle recently formed." Lida wrote that in October 1892, the Circle met on alternate Mondays. W. H. Ford was the leader then and there were 30 members. That November, the members drove to Alvarado to inspect the sugar beet factory, which was running at night under electric lights. Electricity was quite a novelty in those days. In December the Circle expanded its activities to include literary discussions. They also held debates on such serious subjects as "Has the purchase of Alaska been justified?"
A Special Edition of the Washington Press noted that "Chautauqua Circles were organized in the various towns". The 1950 edition of the History of Washington Township related that James Clark led a Chautauqua Circle from 1891 to 1901, and that large meetings were held on the campus of the old Washington High School on Fremont Avenue (now Peralta) from 1915 to the early 20s. Theo Overacker recalled participating in a touring program there about 1922. Her dad hauled equipment for people and helped move the huge tents and materials from the train to the performance site.
The Township Register noted in April 1924 that the local Chautauqua members met at the Country Club to organize for a Chautauqua gathering to be held at the high school grounds June 5 through 9. D. C. Norcross of Ellison-White Chautauquas was present to talk about his visits to the various cities to plan programs. George C. Coit was the elected president and F. T. Dusterberry secretary-treasurer of the local organization. Ticket, advertising, and grounds committees were also named. Mrs. Carrie Emerson was the only woman listed on a committee.
The program announced would bring a number of well-known performers to Washington Township. The opening concerts would be presented by Pickard's Royal Hawaiians, a celebrated company of singers and players. The Conservatory Artists Trio would present concerts on the second day, and the Elias Day Players would bring their "Cappy Ricks" drama the third night. A variety of musical entertainments were slated for the fourth day. The Concert Company would present their famous "White House Organ Chimes" on the last day.
Residents recalled that the whole town was excited when the Chautauqua company arrived. Local men were hired to haul the great tents and equipment to the presentation site. As the people watched the tents being set up, they could hardly wait for the programs to begin. This was an outstanding annual event, and the residents waited with great anticipation. Sometimes the school day was adjusted so students could attend this exciting cultural event.
The Great Depression spelled the end of most touring groups. The coming of the automobile and movies also contributed to their demise. The philosophy of Chautauqua continues at the New York site with a very comprehensive program. In many parts of the country Chautauqua activities are a highlight of the summer with various gatherings and festivals perpetuating what Teddy Roosevelt called "the most American thing about America."