For a time, it was the most American thing in America.
If history were a person, you would pity it.
We abuse history even though history transforms us. We ignore it; shun it as irrelevant. We pretend it doesn’t exist and, when we do allow it sit at the table occasionally, we are just likely to completely mistake history for something else, often distorted quackery. Yes, poor history. It’s an orphan who gets the short end of our attention span.
The nano-second focus of modern life has made us forget Chautauqua now. We do not remember what it was, what it meant, or perhaps even how to pronounce the word: “Shuh-tok-wah”.
The old Iroquois word for moccasins sounds quaint to 21st century sensibilities, and, in truth, it echoes an odd, unintended simplicity. As an idea, Chautauqua might not translate easily into modern life because we are too sophisticated and worldly to accept its premise. We have 24-hour cable news and the Internet now.
How sad we can no longer summon its charm. President Theodore Roosevelt once proclaimed Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
It is long gone. But for 50 years, it was the most profound self-educational, spiritually unifying institution in Middle America. If you have shared in adult education, book clubs, home extension, or correspondence courses, thank the Methodists who invented Chautauqua.
As the Barrington newspaper noted, the Saturday evening of April 15, 1893, was filled splendidly with intelligence and literature at the Lines family home. The occasion was the regular Chautauqua Circle meeting which called participants to four years of common study. A week later, the festivities moved to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Harrower. And eventually to a dozen Barrington homes.
So it was everywhere in America. Chautauqua was an event, a movement, and a moment. It was America’s first invented intellectual circus. At some point after a Methodist minister invented the idea in 1874, 12,000 mostly Midwestern American hamlets, including Barrington, had their own home-only networked version of Chautauqua. There were “Mother Chautauquas,” “Daughter Chautauquas”, and even “Tent Chautauquas.”
The founders at the original Institute near Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., set the academic curriculum and the nation followed.
There were permanent organized encampments with grand hotels, classroom complexes, and pavilions for entertainment – 10 of which still exist. There were traveling educational tent shows and local literary and scientific “circles” where the nation adopted and shared classical culture.
History seldom occurs merely as a function of chance. It is invented. Chautauqua was invented on August 4, 1874, at Fair Point, N.Y., on the west shore of Chautauqua Lake.
Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent were both involved in the Methodist ministry in the late 19th century and sought to improve the quality of Methodist Sunday School teachers and their education.
But the movement that sprang from that summer became less dogmatically religious than it was a subtle blend of progressive Midwest Protestant ethics and civic spirituality.
Why any small American town should care about those in need, seek the betterment of all, and advance civic virtue and tolerance was only theoretically appreciated. The young nation taught itself to value higher qualities of life, including philanthropic good, as a core value. Chautauqua taught the nation how to be smarter. And care more. Barrington learned well.
In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant was asked to visit the Institute and bestow his blessing on the concept. He was welcomed by 20,000 fans. Chautauqua’s founders knew the President/General’s support would win the nation’s heart. It did.
The movement espoused several unsolvable contradictions. Although the center of its being was religiously-inspired liberalism, the boundaries of race and class were more difficult questions. The movement was pervasive in American life, but often disorganized. Keith Vawter saw the Chautauqua inefficiencies and organized touring schedules for the skillful speakers and music programs, so the tents could stay up and the event costs be covered.
There was no denying Chautauqua’s power. By the mid-1890s, it had spawned more than 80 imitators. As the century turned, 15,000 men and women across the country were enrolled in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), and 3,000 graduated yearly. In a nation of only 70 million persons, probably 500,000 participated in some form of Chautauqua fare every year in the 1890s. The original institution had tripled in acreage to 750 acres. Its summer program had ballooned from 12 to 56 days.
The movement’s role as religious indoctrination was brief. Within five years, it became Middle America adults educating themselves and especially women for whom higher education was often too far to reach economically. The educational courses reflected Vincent’s original philosophy: “All Things of Life ... Art, Science, Society, Religion, Patriotism, Education ... whatever tends to enlarge and ennoble.”
When adults in Barrington examined the words and ideas of Shakespeare, Sophocles, or Spinoza for the first time, it most likely was at Chautauqua. Invest $5 a year in the texts to educate yourself with your closest friends. There were tests, certificates, diplomas.
A “Chautauqua graduate” could claim legitimate proof of higher education.
When new immigrants came to appreciate the Constitution, modern Russian politics, or ancient Greek philosophy, it likely was from Chautauqua. The nation was hungry for shared education that nurtured souls and mattered in real life.
Chautauqua delivered that. But it was so much more.
The major “permanent Chautauqua camps” were usually constructed near railroads to accommodate travelers. The first national appreciation of “The Summer Vacation” was traveling to Chautauqua to spend a week enjoying music, art, philosophy, orators, and usually a splendiferous fireworks display at the end of each day.
Chautauqua became not only an idea and a place to visit, but then transformed into a tent show that came to each town on a regular circuit. The great orators, politicians, and artists of the day arrived under the big top to share culture in the only way possible before radio and motion pictures. Some tent shows brought animal acts – with very intelligent animals.
There were human stars, too. The most popular speaker of the 19th century, William Jennings Bryan, barreled into town to thunderously proclaim his populist message of temperance and care for the needy.
Russell Conwell was the “Redpath” Chautauqua tent circuit’s most prolific speaker. “Redpath” was a traveling tent version of Chautauqua operated out of Chicago. In Chautauqua, the concepts of faith and intellectual showbiz were both thought to radiate equally from God.
Conwell delivered his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,152 times. The theme was “get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor.”
He earned enough from Chautauqua to found what would become Temple University in Philadelphia.
The Eastman School of Music forged the American Opera Company to serve Chautauqua. In 1926, the “AOC” performed “Mikado” 133 times in 133 villages from Ohio to Oregon.
In Lake County, the center of Chautauqua life was Lake Bluff. Methodists liked the place and bought 200 acres near the lakefront to produce a grand, permanent Chautauqua camp.
Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, brought together other “no alcohol will pass these lips” leaders in Lake Bluff to form the national Prohibition Party there. That led to the 18th Amendment and made smalltime hood Al Capone into a national figure.
But our attention span wandered. Depression came clanking down on Chautauqua’s head in 1929, and then movies and radio carried culture to every town. Clark Gable and Katherine Hepburn didn’t need Chautauqua to introduce themselves.
Chautauqua, the electric spark of American culture, suddenly flickered out. By 1930, Chautauqua was gone from America, except for quaint vacation outposts that still carry its message and brand. But what it was, it is no longer.
And gone, too, from America’s memory.
Although Chautauqua both as a place and idea no longer dominate as they once did, both still exist. The original camp in New York draws 100,000 visitors a year, including nearly 7,500 on any day during a nine-week summer session.
There are 18 other surviving not-for-profit Chautauquas, including Lakeside, Ohio, and Syracuse, Ind., that also feature symphonies, theater companies, and professional entertainments. They also are big on summer traditions – sailing, swimming, golf, or tennis.
The famous come to participate. You could bump into Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who lectures on the aspect of law in grand opera.
More than 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills, and a wide variety of special interests.
Two civic-minded businessmen of Barrington felt that a need existed for a rebirth of the early American town meeting. Taking clues from the Methodist campground and also the Chautauqua revivalist models, Barrington’s Town Warming was a smash hit.
Barrington’s Town Warming meetings echoed the cultural and educational call of Chautauqua, with the first meetings scheduled to begin in January 1939. Endorsed by all of the late 1930s Barrington organizations such as churches, newspapers, Junior Women’s Club, and Jewel Tea Co., the Town Warmings were “so stimulating, so satisfying, so American” that they continued for several more years. Hosted for about two to three weeks (with meetings each and every night starting in late January), they attracted the nation’s most successful and influential American business, religious, social, and civic leaders who, in turn, stated most enthusiastically, that these meetings ought to happen all across the United States following Barrington’s successful model.
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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.
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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.